Monday 30 January 2023 Dublin: 8°C
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Ulster hope to get back on track and make the most of trip to sunny South Africa
‘That’s our challenge — to make sure we turn up and respect the 80 minutes with our best effort.’

AFTER A TOUGH loss to Leinster at home, Ulster needed to get away for a bit – and what better place to go than Port Elizabeth?

With the city experiencing a heatwave, meaning temperatures have soared to the low 30s, and beautiful blue skies every day, there certainly aren’t many better places to go on tour than the east coast of South Africa.

But for Ulster, while they will enjoy being taken away from Belfast for a week, this is about business and registering their first win in three weeks.

In the race for one of the coveted top two spots in Conference B, Ulster already find themselves third after the loss to Leinster with tricky trips to Dublin and Parc y Scarlets still to navigate.

That’s why victory over a Southern Kings side with zero wins and zero points to their name so far is vital, and Director of Rugby Les Kiss is all too aware of that.

“A game like this there’s always pressure on you, a high expectation to make sure you get the win,” the Australian, who coached with the Springboks between 2001 and 2002, admitted.

“I think the difference this time is this is an environment that is completely different to what anybody else is going to experience this year. They’ll have a fanbase and a much bigger crowd, and the energy they garner from that will be interesting.

“They’re a pretty tricky team to play, they’ve got some speedsters, they’ve got some great skills, they’re building slowly and the Currie Cup season is over now so they’ve been able to strengthen.

“I think this’ll be a completely different team that we’ve seen so far and even though they’re low in the table it’s still important for us to stay fully focused and get the basics right.

Ulster’s Rory Best Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“In three games at least they’ve gotten to 55 minutes and there’s only been 14 points in it, and if you take your eye off the ball they have the speed that can hurt you.

“That’s our challenge — to make sure we turn up and respect the 80 minutes with our best effort.”

It’s already a game that’s caused issues over the decision to move it away from the Kings’ usual home of the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium due to dwindling attendances, such as the paltry 500 that watched them lose to Leinster.

Dressed up as a move to bring rugby to a new community, instead Ulster will travel to the 6,000 capacity Isaac Wolfson Stadium for the game.

While it may indeed prove a good move for spectators, concerns have been raised over the suitability of the stadium for a rugby match, including by Kiss himself.

“I can see the rationale they’ve put together with this,” he reveals. “It’ll be interesting, there’ll be things the players won’t have experienced before, or even the coaches.

“I’ve been here, I’ve worked in South Africa before and there’s a great support in different areas of the country. We’re going to an area where people have been screaming for this kind of high level rugby.

“I don’t think it’ll be hostile, but it’ll be a very fervent fanbase getting behind the Kings. They’re saying it’ll be close to a sell out and if that’s the case the energy is good for the game, but we have to tap into that energy the right way.

“The biggest thing is the experiences the players have never had before, we’ve just got to manage that and get our practices to that point where we’re in charge for 80 minutes.

“We don’t know them, we might be walking into some form of ambush, but it’s an interesting situation. We travel there tomorrow as a team to look at the pitch and get our logistics right, but I think it’s a great move by them.

Ulster’s team Rob Herring Rodney Ah You Sean Reidy Chris Henry Christian Lealiifano Iain Henderson Jacob Stockdale and Kieran Treadwell Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“Would we have preferred to play at the other stadium? Probably. But this is the reality of it.”

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Ultimately, making the most of this trip requires a five point haul against the demoralised hosts as well as enjoying a rare trip outside of Europe for a competitive fixture.

Already the players have enjoyed a safari — with no lion bites — and a spell on the luxurious King’s Beach just outside their hotel as the South African summer quickly rolls around.

And Kiss believes if they come back a stronger group for it then it’s been a successful mini-tour.

“The fact we have a lot of injuries and guys in the Irish camp, you’re bringing another group of players together,” Kiss believes.

“That’s important for us because this group of players will be the one that carries us through the season when we get to times like the Six Nations, and you need that group to be so strong and solid.

“You look through the group and the experience – guys like Chris Henry and Alan O’Connor and around the edges Sean Reidy – but young Jonny Stewart, Adam McBurney, a returning Craig Gilroy, there are important members of this team bonding in this situation.”

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