Belfast Telegraph

Revival shows Les has given Ulster the Kiss of life

By Jonathan Bradley

In a Champions Cup campaign that seemed almost over before it began when Ulster surrendered five points to Saracens at Kingspan Stadium last month, two wins in nine days have re-invigorated the province's attempts to return to the European knock-outs.

For the second week in a row Ulster played some scintillating rugby with ball in hand as their new-look backline showed real signs of gelling as a unit. With Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Darren Cave and, for most of yesterday, Craig Gilroy on the sidelines, Ulster have relied heavily on the likes of Andrew Trimble, Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey in recent weeks with all three again impressing yesterday.

McCloskey didn't cross the whitewash but his ability to crash over the gainline will surely once again have caught the attention of Joe Schmidt while Marshall and Trimble continue to show signs that they are getting back to their best. Trimble's score in the second-half required a brave finish as Thierry Dusautoir attempted to hurtle him into touch while Marshall was pivotal in the build-up with a superb pass.

With Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson exuding control from the half-back positions, there was plenty of evidence that last week's five try performance was far from a one-off.

Indeed Ulster could have hit that number again if two scores, one of which would have provided the moment of the match, had not been pulled back for forward passes. It's been a remarkable turnaround for a side who had looked set for another disappointing European season after the Saracens loss.

Having made the last eight of the competition for four years in succession between 2011 and 2014, last season's flat campaign when a record defeat to eventual champions Toulon in January ended any faint hopes of progression prior to the final game looked set to be repeated.

With Leinster and Munster also struggling, a first quarter-final line-up without an Irish representative since 1997/98 would be another blow to a rugby nation still reeling from a disappointing World Cup but Ulster have at least maintained a real interest in the competition going into the new year.

Despite the heroics of the last fortnight, Saracens remain firmly in the box-seat to top the group having taken 19 points from their four games to date but a spot in the quarter-finals as one of the three best runners up is now well within Ulster's grasp.

Oyonnax, who Ulster will visit on January 10 before hosting at the end of the month, have endured a season to forget in their first tilt at Europe's premier competition having taken just one point from their three contests. After running Toulouse close in their opener, they shipped 100 points over the course of their double header with Saracens and offered just 23 in response.

With their hard-earned Top 14 status at serious risk their focus will be far from the Champions Cup when taking on Ulster.

That means, having earned just their third ever competitive win on French soil yesterday, Les Kiss's side will be bitterly disappointed if they don't add another back in the Rhone-Alpes region.

With Saracens not in action the contest provides Ulster with a real chance to ensure they travel to Allianz Park in mid-January within touching distance of Mark McCall's men.

The pool concludes with a visit from Oyonnax in what is surely as close to a formality as Ulster have seen in this competition since the visit of Treviso two years ago.

Even if they fail to overcome Saracens in north London, it would be expected to take at least nine points from the two games with Oyonnax.

That would put Ulster on 18 points, a tally that was good enough to see Wasps seal the seventh seed in last season's quarter-finals.

In a competition that is harder than ever to win after last season's revamp, a similar reward would surely be seen as real progress in Les Kiss's first season in charge.

Belfast Telegraph


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