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'Exceptionally positive' Ulster support appreciate our efforts, insists Les Kiss


By Jonathan Bradley

If the "noise" which Les Kiss spoke of as he faced the media yesterday has not quite reached deafening levels, there is no denying that Ulster's natives are as restless as they have been for some time.

The province have taken 12 points from their last 15 available, but the nature of the performances, especially surrendering a 12-point lead against Dragons last week, has meant questions increasingly being asked of the Director of Rugby and his coaching ticket.

After shipping 11 tries in the last three games, and given a CV that boasts a successful stint as Ireland's defence coach, Kiss especially has been taking the heat.

Ahead of Sunday's resumption of European action with Harlequins (1pm kick-off), the Australian took the opportunity to respond, saying he has a thick enough skin to withstand any slings and arrows.

"I feel for the players to tell you the truth," he said.

"It is not about me or the coaches. We know our job and we are more resilient, we have been through the mill.

"I think the fans have been great. There is a bit of noise and you expect that. I understand that. We do not respond to the noise but we want people to know we are a group of people who, we believe, are doing the right things.

"The group have been brilliant, worked really hard, been smart. The players, we are challenging in a different way.

"I know the playing group believe in it and that is the most important thing. A lot more fans appreciate what they have done than do not, and I really do believe that.

"The supporter base here is exceptionally positive a lot of the time, and I would rather focus on that and for young Ulstermen to be lauded for what they are trying to do on a daily basis in a fairly tough environment.

"It is easy to pick out the (negative) bits. I do feel for the guys and I back them fully."

As Kiss himself has noted in past interviews, there will always be a certain degree of unrest among players who find themselves on the wrong side of selections, but others have intimated that any suggestions of a 'lost dressing room' are wide of the mark.

With reference to late scores that have at least ensured Ulster's unconvincing performances haven't led to defeats in the last three games, Kiss believes there is evidence to show players are still fighting despite some obvious flaws.

"There is no way we can question the attitude and what their commitment is," he said.

"That sustains my spirit, and that is what my commitment is and that is what I will always be focused on, the players and the team first, and if that is in the right place then all of us can be pretty happy with that approach and togetherness that we have in this Ulster squad.

"I do not think you can underestimate the value of that. And I do not think you can say it is just one person. It is components of your game, pitching up, putting things together to get to a chance where you can still win.

"I think that is something which is important to recognise, and we are not trying to say it externally, but internally we recognise what is getting us there.

"We are also understanding the points of the game where we are not separating the scoreline enough to just get away.

"We actually believe in what we are doing. It may not look like it from the outside, but internally we know what we are trying to do and if we can just continue to stay hard on those things and have the right personnel available, I think we can look back at those results and say that was important for us."

Kiss will no doubt be aware, though, that such assertions will count for little if his team misfire between now and the end of January.

Ulster face seven key fixtures before a small break for the start of the Six Nations, and it was during this spell last year that the province's season unravelled spectacularly.

With four European fixtures and three interpros, scrutiny from both fans and media is sure to be high in the coming weeks and Kiss admits it could be a make or break period.

"This period last year we did not perform well," he said.

"We'll hit Europe and then after Europe, Connacht, Munster and Leinster, and if we are still in the hunt for Europe, another two big games.

"It's massive. This phase two as we are calling it at this stage, is a pretty important period for us.

"If we can get the right combinations of people together it will help. It is going to be massive. We still have to rest players in this period, we cannot play them all in a row.

"When you talk about Quins away and home, Connacht away it is always tough, Munster at home, we have not beaten them here for a while, and Leinster away, they are all big matches for us. It will be interesting to see how it goes."

For this weekend's trip, Ulster will have their full contingent of fit Irish internationals available, with Jacob Stockdale and Iain Henderson making their first appearances for the province since starring for Ireland last month.

Rory Best, Stuart McCloskey, Kieran Treadwell and Sean Reidy all featured against the Dragons last week, while Rob Herring is also back.

Prop Wiehahn Herbst is fit again, although Luke Marshall, Jean Deysel, Kyle McCall and Rodney Ah You are all still out.

Kiss added that Jared Payne, out since returning early from the Lions tour, is nearing a return.

"Jared is getting closer and closer, there's been some really positive signs over the past week or two," he said.

"He's training really well, doing contact work. We'll just see where we get to but he's not available this week."

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