| 10.4°C Belfast

Kiss targets a flying start to Ulster's title mission

The reasons for Ulster's stalled bid for silverware last season can be found in September and October just as much as in May with Director of Rugby Les Kiss determined to avoid a repeat this year.

While each and every spring we hear that someday soon an away side will win a PRO12 semi-final, until it happens that top-two finish and the resulting home tie in the last four remains all important.

With margins so fine come the end of the season - last year Ulster finished only one win shy of hosting their semi-final rather than going on the road to Leinster in the RDS - Kiss has been stressing that every point matters, especially at this time of year, ahead of Friday's opener against Dragons.

In the 2015-16 campaign, it was December before the northern province won back-to-back games, while they haven't banked consecutive victories to start the league since 2012. Inconsistent starts, as we have seen, can seriously hamper a season.

"It's nice to have a clean slate but that doesn't guarantee you anything," Kiss said.

"It looks good when I put the Xs and Os on the wall but it comes down to 80 minutes against Dragons who will be loaded because every team is a contender at the beginning of the year.

"We'll meet them and Treviso and everyone is saying, 'what a great start'. I've seen great starts go pear-shaped pretty quickly. We have to make sure we're armed against that."

As is customary at this time of year, Ulster will begin the campaign without their front-line internationals. Kiss believes these early weeks are good preparation for the challenges ahead during the autumn internationals and Six Nations window.

Having utilised pre-season to widen his playing squad, he said: "There's been a lot of promising things. For us we wanted to challenge the group in the last seven or eight weeks and (dealing without the internationals) was one of the ways we wanted to do that.

"We're battling on a lot of fronts with the PRO12, Europe and then the international season. To have the return that we have had without the internationals, with four of five key guys injured (too), the response to that was excellent.

"I've taken a lot from it. I'm very pleased but we're very guarded. The Dragons, with (Head Coach) Kingsley Jones, there'll be a lot of enthusiasm there. If we go in under the top level that we need to be at, then we'll find ourselves in a scrap."

Kiss was pleased by the depth he saw emerging during pre-season, especially in the impressive first-half showing in Friday's friendly win over Northampton Saints.

Brett Herron, a new signing from Bath, has started all three games at out-half in the absence of Paddy Jackson while Academy back Rob Lyttle has starred with Craig Gilroy and Andrew Trimble yet to return.

"There's been a lot of little snapshots of things (that have been positive) but we won't lose the run of ourselves," added Kiss.

"The first game of the competition, we've got to be really focused on that. That first-half performance (against Northampton) needs to be replicated plus more to seal the deal."

Belfast Telegraph