Bowe can take centre stage for Ulster, insists Kiss
With a brand new half-back pairing and an old face in an unfamiliar place, Ulster’s backline was something of an unknown heading into Friday’s season opening win over Cheetahs, but Les Kiss was pleased with the early returns.
John Cooney and Christian Leali’ifano both made their debut in the six-try victory, while fit again Tommy Bowe looked right at home having moved from wing to centre.
The Monaghan man was Ulster’s first try scorer of the season, followed across the whitewash by midfield partner Stuart McCloskey and winger Louis Ludik.
While the 33-year-old does have experience of wearing the 13 jersey — he appeared there on his first Lions tour in a third Test win over South Africa, as well as during his spell with Ospreys — his time with his home province has almost exclusively been spent on the wing.
Fit again after breaking an ankle on Ireland duty in the penultimate round of the Six Nations back in March, Kiss believes Bowe can give him another centre option throughout this season.
“I thought Tommy did a really good job defensively in particular,” he said.
“Holding the shape we needed against the scintillating, rapid speed (of the Cheetahs), and he was very direct when he ran forwards for us.
“Part of him playing there is to be able to make sure we are resourced in that area. It is seen as a strength for us in that midfield area, but it does not take long for one or two injuries to happen and you start to get skinny there.”
The Cheetahs game also represented a long-awaited return for Darren Cave, while Ulster expect to have Luke Marshall, and indeed Jacob Stockdale who is also an option at 13, back for this weekend’s trip to Treviso after their international exertions with Ireland in the USA and Japan over the summer.
Jared Payne, though, who was last seen in Lions action out in New Zealand, remains “three or four” weeks away from pulling on the Ulster jersey.
Kiss added: “We will not have Jared Payne for another three or four weeks. We just needed to make sure we had our numbers right there.
“Cavey is just coming back from some situations and he had 20 minutes out there as well and it was nice to see Tommy go well.”
While the game was an 151st for Bowe in Ulster colours, it was a first for both Cooney and Leali’ifano, with the side’s new nine and ten combination showing promising signs.
With Ruan Pienaar in Montpellier — the former Ulster favourite grabbed both a first start and first try for his new side on Saturday — and Paddy Jackson unavailable, the former Connacht man and the 19-times capped Wallaby have had to quickly become accustomed to each other’s games.
While Cooney had an entire pre-season to prepare for his Ulster bow, Leali’ifano arrived in Belfast less than two weeks before the Cheetahs contest and the pair had only one full week of training together before lining out in the PRO14 opener.
Under the circumstances, Kiss was pleased with how they ran the backline, believing there is only more to come in the weeks ahead.
“It was rusty at times, but good enough,” he said.
“Their class just showed at the right time in the right way but there were a couple of iffy decisions. John went the wrong way twice in a row when there were no numbers there, but maybe that is where we are still learning about how we get our shape so we can resource it better.
“The combination with the two was pretty good I thought. It did enough and when it was not quite right the class of both just came through.
“I thought Christian managed his energy well, he has not played a lot of rugby and we have a plan to use him to a certain amount of time.”