Ulster blew European hopes at home to Saracens, says Kiss after magnificant win over Oyonnax
Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss last night highlighted his team's two losses to Saracens as the games to regret in their European heartbreak but maintained he is proud of the effort from his squad in this season's Champions Cup.
Despite running in eight tries during their massive 56-3 win over Oyonnax on Saturday, the province failed to make the last eight in Europe for a second consecutive campaign after results yesterday went against them elsewhere.
When the dust settled on a dramatic final day of pool action, just one more point would have put Ulster in the knock-outs as a best runner-up with Kiss (below) left to rue the pair of losses to Mark McCall's Premiership Champions that yielded no return.
"I think the two critical games were those against Saracens," he reflected. "Obviously we would have liked to win the one at home but we definitely should have gotten at least a point out of one of them. That's for sure.
"If we'd taken one point from those two games, then that would have made all the difference.
"I point to these games because that's where we need to grow. We played probably the best team in Europe and they play for 80 minutes.
"That's what we need to grow. That's where I certainly feel we should have gotten one more point."
Despite the failure to progress, Ulster made a big improvement on last year's campaign.
Kiss has been especially pleased by the ability of his youngsters to perform on the northern hemisphere club game’s biggest stage.
“We’re obviously disappointed but we we’re always aware of what a mountain had to be climbed in terms of other teams doing a job for us.
“After the Oyonnax performance I can only say I’m very proud of what the boys delivered there and throughout the campaign
“We accept that we weren’t perfect but there is a silver lining, which you look for in any campaign. Kyle McCall has really emerged and Alan O’Connor, after we lost Iain Henderson, has done a very good job in the second-row.
“Sean Reidy has done well coming in for Chris Henry who was missing for a few games, too.
“Two that have played a bit more rugby, Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall, stepped into the centre positions, held the fort when we had injuries and have now gotten their reward with Irish selection.
“Rory Scholes is another who took a few opportunities when they came his way.
“We needed to get a point out of the Saracens game but we want to show that we learned the right lessons moving back into the Pro12.”
Kiss is aware that much will be made of the fact that no Irish province has made the last eight for the first time in 18 years but feels that, despite a changing European landscape, Irish teams must maintain their Champions Cup ambitions.
“There’s been a lot of talk, and rightly so,” he said. “The game is built around opinion, and differences of opinions, and I don’t necessarily agree that the Irish provinces have regressed.
“It’s more the fact that the French and in particular the English teams have come on so much.
“They have access to greater resources and are able to build bigger and deeper squads.
“It’s no coincidence that the top eight is dominated by those big spending teams.
“We’re fighting a different beast in Europe now but we still think we can do a good job and it’s one of our missions going into the competition next year.
“It’s important that we aspire to do that. To compete in that area is still our ambition.”
Kiss held a squad get-together in Co Down yesterday to give the seven Ireland squad-members a send-off as they join up with the national team in Carton House and also begin looking at the league campaign.
“If you look behind for too long, you end up staying there,” he said. “We’re very driven in trying to make sure we learn the right lessons and hopefully we can step forward and do a good job for the rest of the season in the Pro12.
“Yesterday against Oyonnax was a good step forward, Ruan (Pienaar) wasn’t playing and we had full confidence in what Paul Marshall could deliver.
“Ian Humphreys delivered off the bench, Rory Best sat on the bench because he had a back problem but Rob Herring did a fantastic job for us.
“So, there are a lot of plusses that we can take and we must leverage that to make us a stronger force.”
Jared Payne was outstanding at full-back and will give Joe Schmidt plenty to think about as he considers his options ahead of the Six Nations.
The Kiwi has won all 10 of his caps at centre, but he looked comfortable in his old No 15 jersey, running some brilliant counter-attacking lines and bringing others into play before scoring a try of his own.
“We’ll use him in both, without a doubt,” Kiss said of his versatility. “Coming back from his foot injury, from our perspective and his perspective, to start from No 15 was a good way to work his way back into the game. He finished the game at No 13 and you could see his influence there as well.”