Les Kiss must span new set of challenges for Ulster rugby
Ulster's interim Director of Rugby Les Kiss will face a tricky looking clash at the Scarlets for his initial competitive game in charge as the newly-branded Guinness PRO12 league kicks-off on the first weekend of September.
And he will also have to deal with another frightening looking run-in to the regulation season for Ulster as they host Leinster and Munster before winding things up at Glasgow Warriors on the final weekend of round-robin action on May 15/16/17.
Next season's fixture list was released yesterday as the iconic drinks brand were officially unveiled as the league's new sponsor, replacing Dutch bank RaboDirect.
Guinness are believed to be putting their name to the product for the next two years, with an option in place to extend this to a third, while Sky Sports are also coming on board to show a total of 33 games as part of a four-year deal revealed earlier this year.
The precise days for the PRO12 fixtures will be confirmed in around two weeks' time – yesterday's release just provides the weekends they are due to be played – though, clearly, Ulster are hoping that Friday night games at the Kingspan Stadium will remain largely intact aside from Sky's potential input .
This season will be no soft landing for Ulster and current Ireland assistant coach Kiss – who was unexpectedly brought in last week after Mark Anscombe's removal – will be hoping to do rather better than last season's visit to Parc y Scarlets, where, incidentally, coach Simon Easterby has been strongly linked with the currently vacant Ireland forwards job, when Ulster were turned over in November.
Indeed, Kiss's priority will be to get his side functioning from the off after the last campaign's damaging opening when Anscombe's men managed to lose their first two games – away at the Dragons and at home to Glasgow Warriors – which came back to bite Ulster later on in the season as they ultimately finished fourth and then lost their away play-off at champions Leinster.
This time around, Ulster's first home game will be against Zebre and Kiss's squad then end September with two away games, against Cardiff Blues – which could be tasty if Gareth Ansombe has completed his widely rumoured move to Wales – and then have their return fixture at Zebre which has proved a challenging enough venue in recent seasons.
Kiss will then be looking to rack up some victories as Ulster have four straight home games though these will be spread over the period of early October to the end of November thanks to the combined presences of the initial European Rugby Champions Cup games and the autumn internationals though the province – who will be without Kiss while Ireland are playing – do host the Ospreys on what is likely to be the day before Ireland play Australia in Dublin on Saturday, November 22.
The festive period – encompassing rounds 10,11 and 12 of the league – will see Ulster entertain Connacht in an interprovincial clash which is sandwiched between two away outings at Ospreys and fellow interpro rivals Leinster with the latter followed in round 13 by a trip to Treviso on the weekend of January 9/10/11.
There is one scheduled clash over the course of the Six Nations when Treviso come to Belfast on what will probably be Friday, February 13, the day before Ireland host France and, again, Kiss will clearly be otherwise engaged.
Ulster were hit by a difficult run-in during last season's regulation league campaign and this time it might prove to be much the same scenario as the province's last three scheduled outings see them host Leinster – on the weekend of April 24/25/26 – before doing likewise with Munster and then finishing with a nasty looking fixture at Glasgow.
Should Ulster make it through to a third straight PRO12 play-off, and emerge from that over the weekend of May 22/23/24 as victors – which seems to depend so much getting a semi-final at home – they will then play in the final which will now be held the following weekend and not, as before, at the end of May after the European competitions had previously been played out.
And with seven PRO12 sides qualifying for the European Champions Cup, with at least one club from each country being represented, final league position is vital to stay in the mix to make the all-important upper tier of European competition.
- The annual Ophir Rugby sevens tournament celebrates its 30th anniversary over the weekend of August 15-16 at the Ophir RFC pitches, Cottonmount, Mallusk.