Les Kiss, Ulster’s Director of Rugby, was asked yesterday if his targets for his side had changed, given the slide from table-toppers to fifth in the Guinness Pro12.
“Yes, I just want to beat Connacht,” he said with a smile, which admitted that three defeats in four had not set up what had seemed an assured top-four finish.
“Look, it is what is, and we have to adapt our targets in the short term, but it hasn’t at all deflected us from the primary aim of a place in the play-offs.
“The loss at Glasgow last week, when we were in control for long periods, and when we had chances to put the game away, was hard to take, and the mood in the changing room, not to even leave with a losing bonus point was, I’d say, damaged,” said the former Ireland backs coach.
For the visit of leaders Connacht to Kingspan tonight (7.35pm) Kiss recalls his frontline internationals, so Rory Best skippers the side, Andrew Trimble comes in on the right wing at the expense of Rory Scholes, and Jared Payne makes only his fourth Ulster appearance of the season at full-back.
“It’s great to have these guys back after Ireland duty, we couldn’t have used them last week, because of various knocks and a bit of a virus, which has been going round, but they’re ready for what is a really tough game against a Connacht team which has impressed us all,” said Kiss.
“Pat Lam has done a remarkable job down in the West, and they like to play a good style of entertaining rugby, but they know their defensive responsibilities and they can make life tough for anyone, as they did in beating Leinster last weekend.
“But there were areas where they’ll have been disappointed with, which tend to be brushed aside in victory. We have looked closely at how they play, which is very, very, impressive, and we believe we have the strength in depth and the character to show what we’re really about here in Ulster.”
Roger Wilson replaces the injured Nick Williams at No 8, and Peter Browne comes in at lock for the other major casualty in Glasgow, the promising Alan O’Connor.
Lam has made no fewer than seven changes in personnel to his table-toppers from the side which beat Leinster for the trip to Belfast. In Tiernan O’Halloran’s absence, Robbie Henshaw will play full-back, so Ireland’s centre pairing finds itself in direct opposition at No 15.
With his out-half crisis, Lam has given a debt in the Pro12 to Shane O’Leary, and the injured Kieran Marmion is replaced at the base of the scrum. Nathan White is ruled out, so Rodney Ah You comes in at prop, and Andrew Browne is paired with Aly Muldowney at lock. Skipper John Muldoon, Ulster’s marauding scourge in recent seasons, moves to the blindside of a back row completed by academy youngster James Connolly and Eoin McKeon.
“Our squad depth is strong in all positions, except at 10 and 15, so to lose AJ McGinty to injury, have Shane O’Leary go down with sickness at the start of a short week, and then have Tiernan O’Halloran and Kieran Marmion drop out with injuries at kicking practice, it is a challenge to say the least,” said Lam.
“However, once again I believe it is an opportunity for us to strengthen our resolve and continue to rely on our team systems and work ethic.”
Ulster will seek, in particular, to counter the Connacht breakaway unit and Kiss hopes his forwards will stay on the right side of ref Dudley Phillips at the breakdown after John Lacey came down hard on them in Glasgow.
“John Muldoon is a real warrior, and the tackle count he and Eoin McKeon put in against Leinster was incredible, we’ll have to match that and more.
“We’re the only side to win in the Pro12 at the Sportsground this season (St Stephen’s Day) but that won’t mean too much on Friday; it’s new circumstances, but we’re confident and prepared.”
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