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A perfect Ulster start but hard work ahead for Jono

Hat’s the way: Craig Gilroy on his way to a hat-trick of Ulster tries against Southern Kings
Hat’s the way: Craig Gilroy on his way to a hat-trick of Ulster tries against Southern Kings

By Jonathan Bradley

While on the field, Southern Kings didn't provide particularly stiff opposition, Ulster's head coach Jono Gibbes admitted that last week still threw up some new challenges.

The visit from the sub-par South Africans was a first game for the province since Director of Rugby Les Kiss departed, a move that left Gibbes heading a coaching ticket for the first time.

Having arrived from Clermont last summer, his title of head coach was essentially in name only with Kiss the one calling the shots in terms of tactics and selections.

But the former All Black, assisted by Dwayne Peel, Aaron Dundon and Niall Malone, is now fronting the on-field operation, and while he could hardly have asked for a more agreeable first fixture, he noted that there had been a different feel to a week without Kiss.

The Australian carried himself with a somewhat subdued demeanour, providing a yin and yang blend with the no-nonsense style of Gibbes that has already helped win trophies in both Ireland and France.

"From a personal point of view I wouldn't say it's been a challenge, but it's been different," he said. "For me, Les was a massive source of counsel and advice and experience, and Les's temperament is different to me so he probably balanced me out a bit.

"For me, I found it difficult because I spent a lot of time with him and we'd talk through a lot of things together. That was probably the thing that I found different, it's challenging not to be able to talk through a few things with him.

"He set us up as a coaching group to be able to adapt and transition, so I think we were able to do that for the week."

With no new voices in the set-up - although Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell has already attended training sessions this season and is expected to do so more regularly after the Six Nations - Gibbes did feel there was a real benefit to continuity for the playing group after an unusual mid-season upheaval.

While assistant coach Joe Barakat departed during the campaign last year, Kiss's departure was the first time Ulster had changed their head man during the season since Mark McCall resigned in 2007 and was eventually replaced by Matt Williams.

"In some aspects it wasn't (different)," said Gibbes.

"I think one of the things we've had working for us as a coaching group this year is dividing ideas, feedback, what we're trying to do, having a look at a few things from different angles, collaborating and then making a clear choice, a clear decision and see how it pans out.

"From that point of view it's been reasonably seamless. It was good, we've survived one week and we've got one more next week to try and evolve and improve and continue some of the good stuff that we did.

"I know there's only one guaranteed thing that helps with that and that's to work hard.

"We didn't try anything flashy, we had a pretty simple approach. We identified a few things we wanted to get better at around the basics and worked really hard on those types of things. The fact we didn't set ourselves up with magic plays, trying to create an aura around one magic fix for everything, I think that helps us be more consistent for next week as well.

"The scoreboard looks good, but the pleasing thing from the coaching group is the amount of effort that went in from all the guys and staff for this game."

This Friday night, Gibbes will know presents an entirely different proposition. While the Southern Kings have banked just four points all season and are yet to win a game since their summer switch to northern hemisphere rugby, it is Edinburgh in town this week.

The ease with which the hosts ran in nine tries, three of them by Craig Gilroy, in the 59-10 win, is unlikely to be replicated seven days on against Richard Cockerill's men.

The side from the Scottish capital have a seemingly treacherous fixture list to round off this season but enjoyed a thrilling come-from-behind win at home to Leinster last week to keep the pressure on Ulster.

They still sit just three points behind the province, with Gibbes' side currently occupying the final play-off spot in the PRO14's Conference B.

The first of two meetings this season - Ulster travel to Edinburgh in early April - the clashes are sure to have a large bearing on who is competing in the quarter-finals, and likely travelling to Munster, come the first weekend of May.

Belfast Telegraph

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