Bordeaux-Begles v Ulster: Battle in Bordeaux may prove key to pool, warns Les Kiss
Les Kiss has warned his Ulster side that in the "cut-throat business" of the Champions Cup, the difference between success and failure has never been so narrow.
In his first taste of European rugby last season, the Australian saw the province miss out on the knock-out stages by a solitary point after an impressive double over Toulouse was undone by two defeats to eventual winners Saracens and a failure to net a try-bonus away to an Oyonnax side who were relegated from the Top 14 come the end of the season.
It's a lesson Kiss has heeded and he hopes his players have done the same.
"If I look back on the two Saracens matches last year, we were in the hunt for at least 55-60 minutes in both of them," he said. "They then did what Saracens do; they take the game away from you and we didn't quite hang in with them. Maybe that was through a little bit of inexperience in dealing with tough moments.
"It's something that we've worked on and probably the key lesson is that one point is valuable. To stay in the hunt for one point at any time that you can is important.
"The other side of that is that one point is something you can get with a try-bonus.
"We went away to Oyonnax last year and to get that extra point there would have made all the difference. It's a cut-throat business and it doesn't make it easy when you've got the pool we have."
The three teams vying with Ulster in Pool 5 - Clermont, Exeter Chiefs and Bordeaux-Begles - all met in last season's competition when the single point Kiss cites as so valuable was all that separated Exeter in the quarter-finals and Clermont in last place.
That the Auvergne side would have made the last eight had French international Morgan Parra gone for the posts rather than the line with a late penalty in the final round only served to highlight the paper-thin margins that exist in this competition since the 2014 revamp.
Kiss expects a similar scenario this time around.
"Exeter got through on 16 points I think it was. We got 18 points in our pool with Saracens and Toulouse," he said.
"I think the important thing when you look back on that is that if you're going to steal points off each other, where do you steal them?
"What does that make important? Your home matches are absolutely vital obviously."
With only three of the five runners-up advancing to the quarter-finals, Kiss admits that the drama is perhaps more popular with neutrals than coaches trying to deduce their team's chances of progressing.
"It makes it interesting because it's multi-dimensional," he said. "You do look across the pools. You're trying to say, 'well, they've taken points here, they've earned that, and it looks like they're going to push out to that total'. It makes it exciting but I know it's going to be tough."
In the past two seasons Ulster have lost their opening game in Europe - away to Leicester Tigers and then at home to Saracens - with Kiss admitting that a strong start against Bordeaux on Sunday could be imperative to the side's hopes of making the knockouts for the first time since 2014.
"It's not ideal to get the away game first because a French team is always going to be in the hunt for those first opportunities in Europe," said the former Ireland assistant.
"If they do want to move away from the competition, they do it later on.
"The start is pretty important for us and to go over there and come away with nothing would not be ideal. We're going to try and take points off each other right through."
His efforts to secure that recently elusive strong start have been hampered by a recent spate of back-line injuries.
In the last three games, Stuart McCloskey, Louis Ludik, Darren Cave and Charles Piutau have all shipped knocks that will keep them out of Sunday's contest, but their loss has been offset by the expected returns of an experienced trio.
Co-captain Andrew Trimble will make his first appearance of the season while Stuart Olding and Luke Marshall have both trained this week with a view to linking up in midfield.
Despite the lack of recent match time, Kiss says there are certain players whose profile ensures they warrant inclusion without a Guinness PRO12 warm-up.
"You'd probably be loath to throw them all in at once, but you know a couple of them live for these occasions," he said.
"Some have been out for a longer period of time, some for only three to four to five weeks, but it will be horses for courses.
"When you've got players who have played at that level or international level you're not afraid to put them into that situation."