Ulster boss Les Kiss concern over props as new season kick-off nears
Exeter Chiefs 25-19 Ulster
Exeter handed Ulster their second loss of the pre-season in Sandy Park on Saturday, but it is the health of the province's tight-head props that has left Les Kiss fretting.
On a ground they will return to in this season's Champions Cup, the visitors ran in three tries, including a brace from substitute Rob Lyttle, but Johnny Simpson departed with an ankle injury that leaves Kiss missing three tight-heads with the season opener looming.
Newport Gwent Dragons come to Kingspan Stadium on September 2 for the PRO12 curtain-raiser - Northampton Saints visit on Friday in the last of the pre-season friendlies - with Rodney Ah You the only recognised number three currently fit.
Wiehahn Herbst will miss the opening months of the season with a groin injury while Ricky Lutton is now also battling for fitness. The loss of Simpson in Devon, therefore, has further depleted the tight-head stocks. Loose-head Andy Warwick can deputise on the other side of the scrum, and has done so sporadically throughout his Ulster career, but injury to Ah You would now represent something of a crisis.
With Iain Henderson and Sean Reidy returning later thanks to Ireland involvement in June, and Marcell Coetzee and Chris Henry starting the season on the sidelines, Ulster's preparations for the new campaign have also been hampered by a lack of available back-rowers.
"Saints will be a massive challenge and unfortunately we've got another injury in the tight-head position," said Kiss, looking ahead to Friday night.
"That's our third tight-head now injured, and that puts you under stress, but we've got to find solutions and work with it."
Ulster began Saturday's game with a close approximation of their best available team, and with Charles Piutau debuting, but Kiss was left puzzled by the first-half performance.
Don Armand and Will Chudley both crossed for the hosts in the opening quarter and, although Jacob Stockdale's try provided a response, the director of rugby made his frustration known.
"I'm obviously disappointed," said the Australian, entering his first full season in charge at Kingspan Stadium. "Twenty to 30 minutes in, it was a very slow game and we just couldn't manage the area which they managed well, the breakdown and the tackle area.
"We fell off tackles which gave them quick ball and exposed us on the edges a bit, but we scrambled well enough to keep the score 10-7 at half-time. They had the wind in the second-half and they used it well.
"I think the pre-season has been good and there are some really solid things to take forward. I just feel a little bit disappointed at some elements of the first-half here that we couldn't take control of certain areas. That starts with the physicality."
A Damian Welch score and a penalty try, as well as five points from the boot of Henry Slade, saw Exeter more than double their tally after the turn but Kiss was more satisfied with his team's efforts after Lyttle scored twice in the final 10 minutes.
"I thought Robert Lyttle and David Busby were good and Jacob did well to get his try so there was some nice stuff," he said. "If you saw the last 20 minutes here, guys did put their hands up and they're going to challenge some at the top to stay really focused. If the young guys are doing that they will get selected at some stage."
Ulster: C Piutau (S Windsor 65); L Ludik, D Cave (D Busby 65), S McCloskey, J Stockdale (R Lyttle 69); B Herron (J McPhillips 59), R Pienaar (P Marshall h/t); C Black (A Warwick 30), R Herring (capt, J Andrew 59), R Ah You (J Simpson 49, K McCall 55); P Browne (K Treadwell 49), F Van der Merwe (A O'Connor 58); R Diack (S Mulholland 60), C Ross, R Wilson (M Rea 51).
• Ulster Under-19s recorded an impressive 34-0 success over Italy's Under-18 side