Ulster's Kiss keeping faith despite top stars out of crunch Ospreys clash
If there is one advantage in Ulster’s habit of putting their supporters through the ringer at this time of year, they are at least used to the high-pressure moments come the business end of the season.With the province sitting fifth in the Guinness PRO12 table ahead of their penultimate round clash with Ospreys on Saturday (3pm kick-off), defeat in the Liberty Stadium would almost certainly signal the end of their silverware ambitions for another year.
Despite making the play-offs for four consecutive seasons — the second longest such streak in the league — Ulster have rarely had things all their own way in the race for the top four, with Director of Rugby Les Kiss believing his side can handle the pressure of knowing their season could effectively end in south Wales.
“You can ponder the outcome you don’t want but you have to shove it out straight away,” he said.
“Obviously you have to be aware of it (that the season could end with defeat), but you cannot be hijacked by that.
“The group as a whole, there is a real good spirit there at the moment.
“There is a high level of confidence and belief and that is what we are tapping into more than anything.”
Ever since beating third-place Munster at the end of the 2013-14 campaign, Ulster have won at the home of a play-off side on only one occasion, when defeating Connacht at the Sportsground in 2015.
While they were comfortable victors at the Liberty Stadium last year, it was against an Ospreys side that finished the campaign in a disappointing eighth.
Kiss admits his side have not shown the extra gear required to win on the road often enough.
“You look at what we have to do in away games a lot more,” he said.
“At times we’ve done the job, Glasgow is a good example early in tapping into that. We managed the error rate well, attacked with ambition, and when we sniffed it, we went for it.
“But we have to get back to those sorts of emotional states about our game. We’re going away to Ospreys who have been a top two team all year but are now stuttering. There’s no mistaking that they were a top two team.
“They played some fantastic rugby throughout the year. They’re in a space where they’re going to be asking questions and we have to make them ask deeper questions. I would imagine they’re saying the same about us.
“A lot of the game at this time of the year is mental, a lot of it at this time of the year is emotional and when you have that battle you still have to have that steel and composure to apply your plan accurately.”
Ulster’s task will be all the harder, however, without Chris Henry, Jared Payne, Clive Ross and Darren Cave who have all been ruled out, joining absentees Tommy Bowe and Marcell Coetzee on the sidelines.
Payne, selected last week as a British and Irish Lion, is still nursing an ankle problem picked up against Cardiff earlier this month, while both Henry and Ross sustained knocks against Munster last time out.
While all three are expected to be fit to face Leinster next weekend, the situation is more complex for Cave.
Having picked up a second concussion since February in training, the centre has featured only once in the side’s last seven games.
“Darren has had a couple of things that we’ve had to look at and are just trying to assess at the moment,” said Kiss.
“He has to miss this game. We’re just working that out at the moment to see where that is.
“It is hopeful Chris and Clive will be available for next week. We will get a good indication at the end of this week how they come through after more work.
“I do not want to speculate too much, but we would be hopeful they will be okay.”
For this week, however, the absence of Henry, Coetzee and Ross leaves Kiss struggling for numbers in a back-row that will be opposed by a unit containing British and Irish Lion Justin Tipuric.
“If it is not the front row it is the back row at this stage,” he said. “We have to dig deep in that, but we have a lot of guys who can move in and out of the lock into the back-row as well.
“We have got some options there and Roger (Wilson) is on the edges as well.
“We have given Nick Timoney a chance recently and he has had a very good year.
“So we’re going to be leaning on our depth for sure but Sean Reidy has been going well for us as well, he was close to our best player against Munster.”