Ulster ready to kick on and win silverware, says Les Kiss
Les Kiss's mobile phone lights up with a new message which takes its place at the top of a lengthening list of to-dos on another day of high activity which just happened to be less than 24 hours before that seismic Ruan Pienaar announcement.
If he was feeling the heat that would accompany the bombshell announcement of the end of the South African's time at Ulster, then Kiss wasn't showing it as matters pertaining to tonight's PRO12 kick-off against the Dragons and Ulster's lengthening injury list were perhaps intruding rather more on his thoughts.
What is very much still in Kiss's sights is getting Ulster off to the best start possible in the league campaign and taking it from there.
And now, in his first full season in charge, the Australian knows he needs to push Ulster finally onwards in the direction of some notable success which, though it's never actually said, is likely to be found via the PRO12 route.
He knows the expectation is high, but Kiss makes it known that such pressure is precisely what he signed up for.
"You've got to live with the expectation and embrace it," he explained.
"Once you accept a position with Ulster Rugby, it's part of the deal. I think it's important to aspire to do something great otherwise you're just ticking a box on the way and to me it's more than a job, it's connecting with a lot of other aspirations in the community. Why not think we can do it and just live with that expectation," the former Ireland defence coach added.
For Kiss, it's all about closing the narrow margins that went against Ulster last season and, above all, getting off on the right foot tonight.
"(Last season) The fact is that one more win and we'd have been in the top two if not the top spot," Kiss explained.
"We dropped a couple of games we shouldn't have. So what makes me think we can bridge that? Because it's not as easy as just saying it, it's all about how we get to it.
"I'm reluctant to sell the season on a start but if we can get a good start I think it's going to be handy for us.
"To position yourself between now and Christmas in a strong way doesn't mean it defines your season but it can certainly help."
Belfast Telegraph Rugby Correspondent Michael Sadlier runs his eye over where tonight’s game will be won and lost
THE LAST TIME
Guinness PRO12 played on the 5/2/16 at the Kingspan Stadium, Ulster 17 Dragons 15
Scorers:, Ulster: S Reidy try, pen try, P Jackson con and pen, I Humphreys con
Dragons: C Meyer try, A Hughes try, A O’Brien con and pen
THE KEY BATTLE - ROB HERRING VS THOMAS RHYS THOMAS
The clash of the skippers looks quite an arm-wrestle tonight.
The up and coming Rob Herring is a lot more than just a scrummager and his contribution around the field is high profile.
The 26-year-old is a natural leader and has shown his value to Ulster on many occasions and tonight will be no exception. Expect a high work-rate from the Irish-qualified South African and plenty of tackling.
Thirty-fouryear-old Thomas Rhys Thomas has been there and done that. The 27-times capped Wales international brings an enormous wealth of experience - tonight is his 162nd league appearance - which is just what the Dragons need to help steady their creaking ship. His game will be about rolling up his sleeves and getting down to the dark arts of the coal-face, where the hooker will look to get the edge.
THE MAIN THREATS
Unless the weather turns reallynasty, Ulster’s game-plan will undoubtedly be to provide enough quality ball to launch their tasty looking backline running full pelt at the visitors’ defence.
Having a back three of Charles Piutau, making his competitive debut, along with Craig Gilroyand the strong running Jacob Stockdale should allow Ulster plenty of scope to move the ball around and involve the trio as much as possible.
And with Stuart McCloskey and Olding in midfield, there is morethan enough talent around to potentially run the Dragons ragged while many will be watching Ruan Pienaar closely to see if he is suffering any after-effects of not having his contract extended.
The only fly in the ointment will come if the Dragons get on top up front and a lot will rest on how young tight-head prop Ross Kane goes on his competitive debut now that Rodney Ah You is also out.
The loss of Taulupe Faletau to Bath has cast a long shadow over the eternally struggling Welsh region but the Newport-based side now just have to cope as best they can without their one world class player. They did run Ulster close on the two occasions the sides met last season but the added departure of Jason Tovey (to Edinburgh) and Andrew Coombs (retired) will not have boosted much when it comes to squad confidence.
Tonight the Dragons will definitely fancy their chances at scrum-time where Sam Hobbs, a new arrival from Cardiff Blues, will be hoping his experience can give Ross Kane a torrid time on his competitive debut. Indeed the presence of hooker and skipper Thomas Rhys Thomas and the experienced tight-head Craig Mitchell – another new face from Cardiff – will encourage the visitors to put the squeeze on Les Kiss’s men.
Elsewhere, the Dragons will hope that another new signing Nick Macleod can give them effective game-management and kick his goals while full-back Carl Meyer is also dangerous on the break.
JONATHAN BRADLEY'S VERDICT: ULSTER
Playing during the Six Nations window, Dragons gave Ulster a real scare on their last visit , with Les Kiss’s side only winning after a last-gasp Paddy Jackson penalty. Even when again tackling the Welsh region without their frontline Test players, the hosts should have too much quality with the likes of Charles Piutau (right) and Ruan Pienaar to the fore.