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It may take a while to find our groove but we won't panic: Kiss


By Jonathan Bradley

Pre-season or not, no man who forged his coaching reputation as a defensive specialist could be happy to see their side ship 55 points in a mere 80 minutes.

But having given up nine tries to Northampton Saints in Franklin's Gardens last week, Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss was pleading for perspective ahead of the real business of the Guinness PRO14 beginning against the Cheetahs on Friday night.

Even appreciating the three new coaches added to his staff over the summer, and a raft of changes made to the team's playbook, this season's friendlies have featured a side that could at best be described as a work in progress.

"It's disappointing," admitted the Australian, who was in charge of Ireland's defence from 2009 until he took the top job at Ulster in 2015. "What we've been trying to work on doesn't flow at this stage.

"We're cognisant of the fact that there have been good parts of those games but we need to stitch them together more.

"We know where we need to get to, and we will get there, but we might take a few hits doing it."

But if that sounds like there may be some more teething problems to endure in the early stages of a campaign that few outside the camp are approaching with overflowing optimism, Kiss assured nervous supporters that the side that wrapped up the pre-season slate last week will bear little resemblance to the one that will run out this Friday for another new season at the Kingspan.

"We've given players a lot of time," he said. "The team that we had out to finish the (Northampton) game was completely different to what will be out on Friday. It was a good experience for a lot of young guys.

"We look at those last 20 minutes, and we didn't really review them because things just went away on us.

"Five tries in 20 minutes made it look worse than it was. We could be hijacked by that or we could understand what it is.

"It was an ugly score, there's no need to try and trivialise that at all, but we know that we are better."

For a first visit from new South African opposition, it seems as if Kiss will at least be able to hand three players their competitive debuts.

Jean Deysel, brought in from the Sharks, and former Connacht man John Cooney seem sure to start, while a decision on whether Australian international Christian Leali'ifano will be thrown in from the off or come off the bench will come later in the week.

"He has worked with us early this week," said Kiss of the player who arrived in Belfast only seven days ago.

"He seemed to slot in with ease in a lot of ways.

"He has done a lot of training this week with us and we will have a good discussion about it.

"We basically know what team we are going out with but there are just one or two things to sort out.

"At this stage we will look to start Cooney this week and move him into that space and try to get those combinations going because you are looking at a possible nine-ten combination that could be completely new."

Sean Reidy, whose late call-up to Ireland's summer tour came after he had already returned back home to New Zealand, is also available for the first time since winning his second Test cap against Japan in June, although fellow tourists Luke Marshall, Kieran Treadwell and Jacob Stockdale will not feature until the clash with Treviso a week from Saturday.

Winger Craig Gilroy is suffering from back spasms, while props Schalk van der Merwe and Ross Kane also remain on the sidelines but are still targeting returns in September.

Also missing will be Ulster's Lions trio, with Iain Henderson, Jared Payne and Rory Best only set to be cleared for action towards the end of September.

But after the latter was named captain for the new campaign - Best has been reinstated after Andrew Trimble and Rob Herring shared the job last season - Kiss is especially excited to have the man who has long been the province's spiritual leader back in the official capacity.

"It's brilliant for us to be in a position to call upon someone with his experience and proven leadership ability," he said. "He has recent experience of captaining Ireland and the Lions in massive games and that has further enhanced his leadership qualities, meaning he's better equipped than ever before to lead us.

"We have a structure in place that will enable us to call upon strong leaders throughout the season, regardless of injuries and international call-ups.

"Indeed, Chris Henry, who has led the team on many occasions, will captain us on Friday evening against the Cheetahs.

"I'm looking forward to working with Rory and the other senior players to create a culture that challenges us to improve as a squad week by week."

Best himself, who is just two appearances short of 200 for the province having already become the first Ulsterman to reach 100 Test caps, was happy to once again take on the role.

"It's a huge honour to captain my home province again," he said. "To play for Ulster fills me with immense pride and that feeling is amplified when I lead the team out."

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