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Champions Cup Oyonnax v Ulster: Les Kiss already raising standards, insists Rory Best

By Jonathan Bradley

It was a brief phone call back in May that convinced Ulster captain Rory Best that the province had chosen the right man to lead them into a Champions Cup campaign which begins with the long trip to Oyonnax tomorrow.

After suffering yet more disappointment at the sharp end of the year with last season's PRO12 semi-final defeat to Glasgow, the Ulster squad were understandably at a low ebb but Les Kiss was quickly reassuring his soon-to-be skipper that the resources are still there to end a trophy drought that stretches back to 2006's Celtic League title.

"After the Glasgow game at the end of last season, he phoned me and just told me 'I think we're close'," Best recalled. "It's just small little tweaks here and there. If you can get a couple of per cent more out of each player, and put that to 15 or 23 or 40 guys, that's a lot of per cent.

"Les appreciates the work that the boys have done over the last 18 months. Doakie (Neil Doak) came into a difficult situation and took us to the cusp of a final. He knows that, and respects that."

Having won over 60 of his caps during Kiss' tenure as Ireland's assistant coach, Best knows how the Australian operates better than most but is pleased to see the 50-year-old bring his exacting Test standards to the Kingspan Stadium.

"First and foremost, he'll organise everything," Best said. "You'll certainly not be able to fault the hours that he puts in and he'll expect the coaches to do the same.

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"He'll reward those that do it and he'll expect those that don't to up their game.

"For that, he's brilliant. In the first meeting, he pointed out players who had made mistakes.

"Today he was asking us what we had done between the end of training yesterday and the start of training, just putting a bit of pressure on us to get up to the standards he expects which, ultimately, are international standards.

"If you can get somewhere near that as a club side, you're going to be there or thereabouts.

"He's put emphasis on us but also the coaches. He'll say 'there's your 20 minute warm-up' and it's not 22 minutes. They have to be precise, and concise, in what they're saying.

"The flip side is when they get that right, it's up to us to make sure we get it right and execute it. It won't be two, two and a half hours out on the pitch, it'll be 70 or 80 minutes but for that time, we'll not be walking between things.

"He'll not accept anyone cutting any corners. I've a wife who is a teacher and that's exactly what it's like."

It will be a first Champions Cup game for Kiss and a 54th for Best but both are unfamiliar with Oyonnax ahead of what will be the Alps-based side's inaugural tilt at Europe's top table.

Given the occasion, 33-year-old Best is expecting a unique challenge.

"It's a very big game for them," said Ireland's most capped hooker. "They've fought into the top tier of European rugby and, first game at home, they've a very good record there.

"It's going to be tough. Probably the dangerous thing is, they've a few players we know. (Soane) Tonga'uiha, Stan Wright, Pedrie (Wannenburg) who was here, but they've a lot of other good players that maybe for supporters aren't household names.

"The danger for us is that we might take the eye off the ball. We've done a lot of homework, we know a lot about them but we've got to be really precise, really disciplined, take away that fire and just make it a rugby match."

If the side currently one from bottom in the Top14 are a different proposition, the remainder of the pool has a wholly recognisable look.

Saracens, after meeting Ulster at the quarter-final stage in both 2013 and 2014, and Toulouse, who after this season will have been the province's most frequent European foes after Stade Francais, enter as favourites to progress and Best admits that the competition is more testing than ever in its new format.

"When you look at last year's groups, and the groups right across the board this year, when you remove four of the so-called worst teams from the competition, it's going to make everything a lot tougher," he pointed out.

"When you look at our group, everyone talks about how tough it is but you look across to Leinster's (with Toulon, Bath and Wasps) and would you want to swap? Well, no.

"Would Leinster want to swap into ours? Probably not.

"That's just the way it is, there isn't one where you go 'I'll tell you what, if we put ourselves in that group we'd really fancy our chances'.

"It's a tough draw and it's probably what the organisers were planning.

"It's really, really tough now to get to the quarter-finals. It's down to how well you play, not how lucky you were in the draw."

Proving that starts tomorrow in France.

Champions Cup: Stade Charles-Mathon, Sat, (1.00pm)



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