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Win or bust as Ulster know Euro hopes are now at stake: Kiss

By Michael Sadlier

Published 20/10/2016

Rallying call: Director of Rugby Les Kiss wants a reaction from his Ulster stars when Exeter visit the Kingspan Stadium
Rallying call: Director of Rugby Les Kiss wants a reaction from his Ulster stars when Exeter visit the Kingspan Stadium

At least there is little in the way of equivocation when it comes to what has to be done on Saturday evening. Yes, it's win or bust time already.

Of course, Europe is like that. So unforgiving an environment for those who falter and a ruthless means of highlighting weakness and punishing profligacy which Ulster found to their bitter cost in Bordeaux last Sunday.

And so, here we go, Ulster and Exeter Chiefs will slug it out to stay in the Pool Five race. Cue another of those backs-to-the-wall occasions when Ulster simply must dig out a victory to avoid seeing their European hopes pretty much sink from sight just two games in.

They've been here before and delivered, but that guarantees nothing. Lose again and Europe will be effectively gone, meaning that December's back-to-back clashes with pool leaders, and current Top 14 pacesetters, Clermont will become even more forbidding than they already appear to be.

And not only that, but stumble to Exeter Chiefs on Saturday night and three defeats on the bounce for Les Kiss - taking into account their reverse in Galway prior to the arrival of the Champions Cup - will be no way to return to PRO12 action for next week's emotion-laden inter-pro against Munster.

The hurt of last Sunday is still plain to see with Kiss, but, like the squad, things have moved on and the Australian now stresses that the situation is all about handling the pressure and producing an appropriate response.

Being under the pump like this definitely wasn't the intended feeling for this week as an Ulster side who know they folded late on when pitted against Bordeaux's physicality - Kiss' men conceded 19 unanswered points in the last six minutes - have to gather themselves to deal with an Exeter team smarting at having been dismantled at home by Clermont.

"That wasn't in the plan," Kiss admitted with a wry smile of how things have been looking since the squad's return from France.

"And even 10 minutes before the end of the (Bordeaux) game it wasn't in the plan (Ulster conceded three late tries).

"We now have to turn up at home and do the job."

Indeed. Part of this response will involve being able to dominate Exeter up front never mind pulling things together defensively after the concession of seven tries over the last two games.

An early statement will have to be made and Ulster's senior forwards have to be at the forefront.

"Rob Baxter (the Chiefs coach) has talked about being angry (after their 35-8 thumping by Clermont) and coming here looking for a result and he's asked the players to be angry so we expect a full assault," said Kiss.

"So, we need to be up to that challenge.

"They'll come with something but more importantly we've got to come back with something. We have to be physical to win this game."

And it's not just Ulster's starting side that have to be on the money right from the off, their bench must also deliver energy and accuracy when called upon which clearly wasn't the case in Bordeaux.

"It's something we talked about," Kiss admitted of the implosion. "And I said it to a couple of the starters as well.

"If we'd scored that try just before half-time (Andy Warwick knocked on going over the line) it's 17-3 and we're away.

"That's the biggest disappointment of it all."

Not for the first time, Ulster's on-field leadership and composure also came firmly into focus last Sunday.

Paul Marshall's decision to run a last-minute penalty, when a losing bonus point was on offer from a shot at the posts, was particularly ruinous.

"It hasn't been a witch-hunt," former Ireland assistant coach Kiss replied. "And we want a group of players who make decisions and back them.

"But when you're empowered to make decisions it has to be in the context of the game.

"We have to execute under extreme pressure with the tactical capacity to work in the heat of that environment.

"We're not scarred (by Bordeaux) but we are definitely hurt."

Kiss, meanwhile, is hopeful that both Ruan Pienaar (knee) and Charles Piutau (concussion) will be ready for Saturday.

Second row Dan Tuohy may also feature in the squad after coming through two Ulster 'A' games, as could Tommy Bowe.

Tight-head prop Wiehahn Herbst looks set to get his first game time since last January for the 'A' team in their B&I Cup clash with London Scottish after finally shaking off his toe and groin problems.

However, fellow tight-head prop Ricky Lutton, whose first game back from a groin issue was against Jersey in the B&I Cup, has picked up a toe injury which will unfortunately keep him sidelined again.  

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