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'We have to be of a strong mentality to nail those moments': Resilience is crucial for Ulster

‘How do you get to a point where you are better than the distractions or the hits that come from the side?’

Image: Presseye/Matt Mackey/INPHO

THERE IS JUST a hint of frustration rumbling through that incredibly even tone that Les Kiss invariably speaks with.

He’s looking back on last season, Ulster’s first without a play-off Pro12 commitment since their run to the 2012 Heineken Cup final, and he highlights a turning point of sorts.

It came early. Shockingly, annoyingly early away to stuttering champions Connacht; a team they had made a habit of beating until, on the back of a five-game winning run, they went to Galway and encountered the team the rest of the tournament had already suffered against.

“We met Connacht and we had a poor first half. In this competition you cannot have a poor first half, and it hurt us,” Kiss says.

Ulster’s director of rugby is intent on making Ulster mentally stronger than a team who allow themselves to be put off track, off plan and off focus by bad halves at the office.

“There are some good strong qualities in there, some talented players. The key learning I think is how do you develop to a point where you handle those arbitrary (factors)?

“Whether it is an injury or whatever the permutations, how do you get to a point where you are better than the distractions or the hits that come from the side? And just trying to build that early and get it strong enough early so you can roll into the season is probably the big thing.

“Critical moments like (the Champions Cup loss away to Bordeaux) we have to be of a strong mentality to be able to nail those moments. Those are things we have been working on.”

Les Kiss Source: Presseye/Brian Little/INPHO

The ‘we’ of course is a new backroom team alongside Kiss. Jono Gibbes looks like the perfect choice to add steel to a squad and a pack as head coach while Dwayne Peel comes in highly-rated after a spell as backs coach with Bristol.

Under that new regime, it was noticeable that Iain Henderson and Kiss both steered clear of demanding silverware as they faced the media at the Pro14 launch last week. They have sent representatives making powerful demands at these events before, but come the end of the season they have continually been left cursing their luck.

“You should have that ambition but we are not getting distracted by that,” explains Kiss, “if we are a better team every session about a team builds stronger resilience on a weekly basis. If we get that right we will end up in a position where we can possibly do something at the back end of the season.”

Every session, every match. Kiss is seeking grim determination from his players. That’s the ultimate sign of a champion.

“Munster in the day were the kings of it. They would just scrape out whatever point was necessary. But it is different knowing something and reading about it and really understanding what gets that.

We have got to find out what that is, or really take on board what that is and apply it when it needs to be.

“Once that happens it changes the dynamic of the rest of the pools as well, when you talk of Europe, but even in the Pro14 now every point matters. Just being aware of those particularly away from home and knowing how to make a difference with that point is key.”

In terms of resilience, the presence of Christian Lealiifano ought to carry some measure of inspiration to Ravenhill. The brilliant Wallaby playmaker has come through Leukaemia and chemotherapy to return to playing professional rugby, and his decision to chase more matches while the southern hemisphere is in off-season is testament to his character.

Christian Lealiifano Source: Presseye/Matt Mackey/INPHO

However, the Brumbies man is still in the process of building is body back up to its maximum capabilities. So Kiss is not willing to place all the rigours of a season directly onto his shoulders.

“It’s well known in our country, our Irish community, that we look after players,” replies Kiss, who was long enough in an IRFU tracksuit to see the player management programme laid out in full.

“Some players can handle it, some players can only handle three before you have to really cool their jets and give them a chance to recover. At Ulster we know our players intimately like that. Now I have got good information on Christian and there is no way we are going to play him every week. You’d just be flogging a horse.

“I think it is a vote of confidence (From Lealiifano). He has obviously researched and explored what our programme is about and what the opportunities are there. He gets a chance to really get into the game again, I think it is a win-win all around. We will certainly use him wisely.”

Between the Wallaby, Pete Nelson, Brett Herron and Ireland U20 graduate Johnny McPhillips, Ulster have options to fill a void at out-half.

Filling gaps, and battling on is what this season is all about.

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Sean Farrell

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