The post mortem on the European Campaign ended on Monday for Ulster and director of rugby, Les Kiss, said it is all about looking forward as they head into a crucial period in the Guinness PRO12.
Ulster’s 56-3 bonus point securing win over Top 14 side, Oyonnax, proved not to be enough to get them through as one of the three best runners-up - missing out by a match point on qualification to the last eight - in the European Champions Cup.
The attention turns quickly to the Guinness PRO12 again and sixth place Ulster go into what is always a crucial period in the campaign during the Six Nations Championship.
Seven Ulster players headed to Dublin on Monday to start the build-up to next week’s opening game against Wales at the Aviva Stadium for those in Belfast it was about preparing for a tricky encounter away to Italian strugglers Benetton Treviso who are still seeking their first win from 12 previous outings and will be hoping 13 will prove a lucky number for them.
Ulster will then face NG Dragons, Glasgow and Scarlets on successive weekends and all at home before taking a trip to Cardiff and back at home against to face Zebre. They will then end a 16-week run with a most welcome two week break.
“It is another tough six weeks for sure,” remarked Kiss. “All the teams in the top eight of the league will be really targeting this period.
“It is a tight competition and Glasgow have two games up their sleeve and a couple of other teams, ourselves included, have one up their sleeve. By the end of this period everything will have evened out and the true picture will be known.”
There are a maximum 30 points available from the six games and, with Ulster sitting in sixth place, eight points behind leaders Scarlets and closer to the teams directly above them there is a need to keep the ‘W’ column increasing.
Two things are at stake with the priority being to ensure qualification for the Champions Cup next season. If they take care of that, then realistically a top four place and qualification for the playoffs in the league will almost be guaranteed.
Kiss admits he is not big into goal setting, but he will set targets to drive the squad.
“I had set myself some targets privately, I had set some earlier but did not achieve them,” said Kiss with a smile.
“it is not something I am big into, but I do like to set a target that drives the players and gives you a chance to attach a daily action and it will keep the focus on the things that make sure you will get there as best as possible.
“If you are looking at 30 points (from this block of games) we have four at home during the period so we would want to make a more than positive return from them.
“I think that is something we can expect of ourselves and hopefully we can deliver.
“It is very tight (in terms of the standings). halfway through the six week period you would be getting tetchy if you were not putting one or two wins together at least.
If you drop one in three you are still in the hunt. Anything further than that you are falling by the wayside because others are starting to jump ahead.
“You have to try and get what you can in a real positive sense from them because you can position yourself into a nice place on the stretch home.”
While Ulster lost both European Cup games to English side Saracens, they produced the double twice over two French clubs, Toulouse and Oyonnax. To win on the road twice was a massive boost to a side whose away record has not been strong.
The key for Kiss now is bottling some of that form, even without his internationals, and bringing it to the PRO12.
“I would hope we can continue along the same trajectory now as we go back in the domestic programme,” said Kiss.
“Obviously there are some combinations, such as Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey, that we are unlikely to have and we need to look at how, say for example, how Stuart Olding and Darren Cave would work.
“It shapes things slightly differently as to how you engage the line. We will still be able to manoeuvre it to a point where we can use the ball and express yourself.”
Kiss will name his side on Friday with Stuart Olding set to make his return in the midfield, partnering Darren Cave.
Rob Herring is the only player expected to be released by Ireland and he will again start at hooker.