Connacht v Ulster: We're ready for derby war, says Les Kiss
Champions Connacht have struggled but will be fired up to tackle fierce foes
Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss has said it would be "stupid" to write off Connacht's chances of defending their Guinness PRO12 crown ahead of his side's trip to Galway on Friday (7.35pm kick-off).
Following a disrupted pre-season - they were only able to play one senior friendly after cancellations scuppered their original schedule - Pat Lam's champions began the campaign meekly with three defeats and were only spared a fourth against lowly Zebre when torrential rain in Parma saw the game abandoned with the hosts 22-10 to the good.
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There were signs of life last week in a bonus-point win over Edinburgh - albeit against visitors who had parted company with their head coach Alan Solomons, the former Ulster supremo, in the previous days - and Kiss is expecting to meet last season's champions, not this term's strugglers, when he pitches up at the Sportsground.
"It'd be harsh to say they've regressed," he said. "The type of teams they came up against early in the comp were teams who were right up for it. They raised their games.
"You saw what Glasgow did when smarting from losing two in a row to end last year. Both them and Ospreys had their full squad with them for the whole off-season. There's differences there that you have to take into account. I don't think they've went backwards, you'd be stupid to say it."
During the western province's transformation from cellar dwellers to a side who will dine at Europe's top table on merit when the Champions Cup resumes next weekend, there have been notable victories over both Leinster and Munster but a win against their neighbours from the north remains elusive.
Indeed, only once in the last decade have Ulster lost at the Sportsground, that coming in 2012 during Eric Elwood's reign and when the visitors sent a shadow side having beaten Munster in a Heineken Cup quarter-final less than a week a prior.
"The words have been put out there from Connacht that we're the scalp they want," Kiss added. "They haven't beaten us yet (under Pat Lam) in their own words. We know that we're going to go down there and have to match that intensity and physicality.
"It's their home turf and they've had 80% of their games there. They've lost a couple and they won't want to lose another one. We know we're going into a real colosseum there.
"The interpros bring out something different in every team so the challenge for us is to do what we did last year. We went down there on a cold, wet night around Christmas time, our resources were down a little but we still came out with the win. It's going to be tough all the way, it's not going to be easy but it will set us up well for Europe."
With that in mind, notable names on the injured list will be a cause for concern.
While Ruan Pienaar is not expected to play solely with next week's trip to Bordeaux in mind, Andrew Trimble's return from a toe problem has been delayed at least another week.
Stuart Olding and Luke Marshall are also aiming to return only in time for the Champions Cup and worry has grown over the injury picked up by Franco van der Merwe against Ospreys.
They join absentees Stuart McCloskey and Wiehahn Herbst on the sidelines while short-term signing Anton Peikrishvili has sustained a calf strain since arriving in Belfast.
But Kiss says he would have no qualms about throwing players back into the high-intensity atmosphere of Europe without any PRO12 action under their belts.
"You'd probably be loath to throw them all in at once but you know a couple of them live for these occasions. 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.
"All at once? Maybe you wouldn't but when you've got players who have played at that level or international level, you're not afraid to put them in."