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European Champions Cup: Ulster can conquer Europe and compete with best vows Les Kiss

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 12/11/2015

United front: Ulster captain Rory Best with Munster skipper Denis Hurley and Leinster captain Isa Nacewa ahead of their teams’ Champions Cup campaigns
United front: Ulster captain Rory Best with Munster skipper Denis Hurley and Leinster captain Isa Nacewa ahead of their teams’ Champions Cup campaigns
Les Kiss

Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss has said the Irish provinces have every right to maintain their lofty European ambitions despite the recent domination of the competition by free-spending French clubs.

Ulster, Munster and Leinster have secured a combined six titles under the continental competition's various guises in the past but with big budget Toulon having accounted for the last three many will see the 2012 final - when Leinster defeated Ulster to win their third Heineken Cup in four seasons - as a high watermark.

Last year, Ulster failed to make the knockouts for the first time in five years but even with Kiss, as well as his southern counterparts Leo Cullen and Anthony Foley, facing another testing draw, the determined Aussie is refusing to lower expectations.

"I think what I've gathered in the years I've worked in Ireland is that every player in every province will always think they have something they can deliver that's going to get results no matter who they're playing.

"Every province in Ireland will think that they should get out of their pools and so they should. Every team should have that ambition, why not?

"Whether that's the reality, you just have to wait and see.

"It doesn't mean you get hi-jacked by that idea, you have to do what you need to, round by round, but of course every team will still have the same targets as before."

That round by round approach sees Kiss, aware that the giants of Toulouse and Saracens lie in wait, focussing this week on the task of toppling Oyonnax in their first pool game come Saturday afternoon.

The unusual trip into the Alps - remote enough that local fans used to chant 'it's here, it's here' at travelling supporters - sees Ulster become the first visitors to the Stade Charles Mathon in Europe's top competition.

While French sides, especially those struggling domestically as Oyonnax are, can often lose interest as the tournament progresses Kiss is all too aware this is a game that Christophe Urios' side will have targeted long in advance.

"They did exceptionally well to get into Europe last year," he said of his weekend opponents.

"On a 3G pitch up in the mountains, they'll be hungry and they'll love nothing better than to say they tipped over Ulster in their first tilt at the competition.

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"That's what scares me but that's what you want as well.It offers an opportunity to see how players stand up to it."

Having watched the competition from both afar and as an interested observer during his time as Ireland's defence coach, it is a game the 50-year-old has eagerly anticipated since agreeing to take on his new role

"I think this competition is something that every coach in the world wants to have a go at at some stage," he said.

"When you see the types of performances through history -Wasps, Leicester, Munster - it's got this thing about it that is just alluring.

"To be involved into it up to my eyeballs is just fantastic.

"I'm relishing it but I'm also aware that it can bite you pretty bad and knock you down a couple of pegs pretty quickly.

"In all honesty it's just really exciting to be involved with Ulster."

His side this weekend will be boosted by the return to fitness of Andrew Trimble, Nick Williams, Louis Ludik and Luke Marshall, while Roger Wilson and Callum Black will also be added to the panel that overcame Dragons, with Kiss admitting that he'll need all available hands for a pool that contains two heavy hitters.

"We're not underdogs but I suppose it would be far-fetched to say we're favourites.

"We understand it's a massive challenge and a loaded pool. We knew the challenge when the draw came out, we've got to steel ourselves to meet it.

"I think Saracens are a team that can have a big tilt at this trophy. Their previous history has been strong in it; they know how to play cup rugby.

"They're a team who will rightly say they can win…not that you'll get that out of Mark McCall.

"Toulouse, with Guy Noves moving on, they've still responded well to the new structure.

"When you look at the talent pool you do get a little bit nervous about it, I guess, but hopefully they do a job on each other on Saturday.

"If we can hopefully do our job then we can maybe place ourselves well for the next week."

Champions Cup: Stade Charles-Mathon, Sat, (1.00pm)

Oyonnax v Ulster

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