Kiss accepts Ulster are not favourites in tough Pool

Ulster and Ireland winger, Craig Gilroy, during captain's run in Stade Charles Mathon, Oyonnax yesterday
Ulster and Ireland winger, Craig Gilroy, during captain's run in Stade Charles Mathon, Oyonnax yesterday

New director of rugby, Les Kiss, fully expects Ulster to challenge for quarter-finals in Europe this season, but accepts that English Premiership side, Saracens probably have the squad and experience to come out top in their group.

Ulster face Oyonnax on Saturday afternoon in the French Alps as they open Pool Four, with Saracens entertaining French side Toulouse later in the afternoon.

It will only be Kiss’s second game since taking up the role at the Irish province, but he hopes he will be able to put the feet up and watch the two key group opponents after Ulster do a job on the French debutantes.

Kiss does not see Ulster as underdogs when pressed on the matter this week but admitted : “I would be hard pressed to say that we would be favourites.

“You could not possibly go to that place.”

He added: “But I am not sure if we would say we were underdogs.

“We understand it is a massive challenge it is a loaded pool.”

Kiss adding that getting Oyonnax first up was probably the worst time to get them at home.

“But we knew what the challenge was when the draw came out and we have to prepare ourselves to meet that challenge.

“I would not say we are underdogs (in the bigger picture) but I do know it would be far fetched to say we are favourites there are other teams who you would say were ahead of us.

“I think Saracens are the team can rightly say they can have a bit of a tilt at this trophy because their previous history is strong.

“They know how to play cup rugby, they have been at the pointy end a lot of times recently

“They are a team that can rightly say that we can win this competition, although I am not that you are going to get that out of Mark McCall for sure.

“But with Toulouse in there they have won the most and with Guy Noves moving on they seem to have responded well to their new structure and winning games well.

“So, when you look at their talent pool you do get a little nervous.

“Hopefully they will do a job on each other and if we are good enough and disciplined to do our job we can place ourselves nicely for the following week,

“We will sit back and watch them with interest, but hopefully we will get our stuff right this weekend which is the main thing.”

Kiss made seven changes to the side which registered a first away win since April for the trip to France.

Ireland wingers Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy return to the side for the clash at Stade Charles Mathon and they will play in the back three alongside fullback Peter Nelson.

Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson will start together at half back for the first time this season, while Luke Marshall and Darren Cave will line out in midfield.

Marshall has just returned from a thumb operation and takes the place of Stuart McCloskey who is rested.

Kiss has rewarded Kyle McCall for his impressive display against Dragons last weekend and handed his first European Cup start at loosehead.

Ricky Lutton gets the start at tighthead ahead of South African Wiehaan who is on the bench.

Captain Rory Best starts after his cameo off the bench last weekend .

Dan Tuohy and Franco van der Merwe will continue their second row partnership, while Robbie Diack and Chris Henry will be joined in the back row by number 8 Nick Williams.

Callum Black, Wiehahn Herbst, Lewis Stevenson and Sean Reidy will provide forward cover on the bench alongside Herring.

Hughes Insurance Academy scrumhalf, Dave Shanahan, as well as Ian Humphreys and Louis Ludik, are also included among the replacements.

Paul Marshall was unavailable to travel but Roger Wilson and Rory Scholes have gone out with the squad as additional cover.

Oyonnax make their first appearance in the European Champions Cup having played in the Challenge Cup in the previous two seasons.

They had an impressive season in the Top 14 last year, but have struggled this season and are currently sitting one from bottom.

On Thursday their poor form this season saw president Thierry Emin go to the extremes of sacking head coach Olivier Azam.

He had only arrived in the offseason following the departure of Christophe Urios who had spent eight years with the club, guiding them from the French second tier all the way to Europe’s elite competition.

However, following six defeats in his opening eight games in charge — including a 38-3 hammering at the hands of La Rochelle last weekend which left them secomd from bottom.

Oyonnax have named former Ulster player Pedrie Wannenburg on the bench.

Oyonnax: Florian Denos (c); Silvere Tian, Vincent Martin, Eamonn Sheridan, Fetu’u Vainikolo; Regis Lespinas, Fabien Cibray; Laurent Delboulbès, Jody Jenneker, Marc Clerc, George Robson, Fabrice Metz, Valentin Ursache, Olivier Missoup, Viliami Maafu

Replacements: Jeremie Maurouard, Soane Tonga’uiha, Antoine Guillamon, Leon Power, Pierrick Gunther, Pedrie Wannenburg, Piri Weepu, Nicky Robinson

Ulster: Peter Nelson; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Kyle McCall, Rory Best (c), Ricky Lutton, Dan Tuohy, Franco Van Der Merwe, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Nick Williams

Replacements: Rob Herring, Callum Black, Wiehahn Herbst, Lewis Stevenson, Sean Reidy, David Shanahan, Ian Humphreys, Louis Ludik