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Why Ulster's European opener against Wasps couldn't be more crucial

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Europe has been a far from happy hunting ground for Ulster over the last three years, the 1999 champions seeing their run of four straight quarter-finals appearances end in 2015 and not making it back to the knock-out stages since.

Perhaps not coincidently, the ping pong balls in the pool stage draw also paired them with teams that would go on to make the final in each of those seasons, but there is another lesson in those failed campaigns.

For that three-year span, two thirds of the teams making the last eight had won their opening fixture.

And indeed, of sides who opened with a loss to a team who didn't go on to make the quarter-finals themselves, only two survived to tell the tale when April rolled around.

In other words, it is hard for Ulster to over-state the importance of Friday night's Pool 1 curtain-raiser against Wasps at Kingspan Stadium (7.45pm kick-off).

The English visitors, once of London but now residing in Coventry, have emerged from their own pool for three seasons in a row, making the semi-finals in 2016 when Ulster's Charles Piutau was their star turn, but are struggling domestically this season.

Sunday's loss to European champions Saracens was a fourth on the bounce for Dai Young's men and they were without 15 of the first-team squad due to injury.

The likes of Danny Cipriani, Jimmy Gopperth, Joe Launchbury and Nathan Hughes all missed the defeat at Allianz Park, although only Cipriani is believed to be long term.

The visitors are sure to be low on confidence, with Ulster also having had almost a full two days more to recover from last weekend's exertions, but Kiss is wary of their threat having seen them win in Belfast already this year.

"We played Wasps in a friendly and the way they got the width early was a challenge for us," he recalled.

"We know that is going to be a challenge. They are quick and they play with their big thrusting forwards like Hughes and Launchbury to get the ball to Gopperth.

"They are missing Cipriani but they get into that shape and there are three guys in the wide channels who have blistering speed, so it is going to be a tough ask for us in that area.

"We have got to slow their momentum somehow and then make sure we are balanced in our defensive line.

"We want to make sure our scrum gets in front of a few little things that have been mentioned, and probably just make sure when we get down into the opposition '22' that we make sure we are a little more clinical."

Largely thanks to Wasps' lacklustre start to the season, Pool 1 gives the impression of being one of the most open in the competition, with Harlequins hosting French debutants La Rochelle in this weekend's other fixture.

Unfamiliar opposition to most in Ulster, head coach Jono Gibbes and assistant Dwayne Peel will be relied upon heavily for insights as the pool progresses.

"Dwayne has had a lot of experience of Wasps and Quins from his time in England so there's a good knowledge base that we can work from for those teams," added Kiss.

"Jono has a fair bit of experience of La Rochelle and we saw a few weeks ago they put 50-odd points on Clermont. They're a massively talented team, especially at home.

"They're a big team, physically, that's one thing has already came through from Jono.

"They work collectively, but they have individuals that can do things from 100 metres out too.

"It's a massive challenge so I'm happy to have two coaches with me who have a lot of experience of what's ahead."

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