'I don't feel the Irish sides have regressed' – Les Kiss
Ulster 56-3 Oyonnax
Published 25/01/2016 | 02:30
Ireland's last men standing in the Champions Cup lasted until yesterday afternoon before Stade Francais' bonus point win over Leicester Tigers ended their interest in the competition.
Ulster had done everything they could by dismantling a woeful Oyonnax side at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday, but their inability to pick up more than four points from their previous two games cost them dear in the final shake-up.
Thus, there will be no province in the last eight for the first time since 1998 and no team from the Pro12 nations for the first time ever.
Yet Les Kiss, Ulster's director of rugby, insists that the Irish sides can continue to aspire to European greatness despite the advances made by English and French clubs in recent years.
"There's been a lot of talk about that and rightly so," the Australian said. "I don't particularly agree that the Irish provinces have regressed greatly.
"You can point more to the fact that the English and French clubs have access to better resources now.
"The English salary cap has increased and they are able to build bigger and deeper squads and buy extra-special talent more often as they try to match the French teams.
"The top eight is going to be dominated by those big-spending teams who have the resources to get there. They have planned well, improved their coaching as well and we're fighting a different beast in Europe.
"We still think that we can do a good job in Europe. It's one of our missions going forward in the next year to make sure we can improve on what we did last year and qualify.
"It's important here at Ulster that we aspire to do that. We've got a generation of rugby players and a generation of fans and sponsors that have engaged in the game in the last 10, 12 years based on the fact that Europe is the place you want to be in.
"You want to compete in Europe, you want to say you're the best in Europe. That's our ambition."
For most in Irish rugby, the Six Nations becomes all-encompassing for the next few months, but, for Ulster and the rest of the provinces, attention will now turn to the Guinness Pro12, where next season's Champions Cup campaign begins in earnest.
Currently sixth in the table, they will hope to use the momentum gained from this eight-try win over the Top 14 strugglers to qualify for the play-offs and earn a favourable European draw by winning the league.
Kiss held a squad get-together in Co Down yesterday to give the seven Ireland squad-members a send-off as they join up with the national team in Carton House and also begin looking at the league campaign.
"If you look behind for too long, you end up staying there," he said. "We're very driven in trying to make sure we learn the right lessons and hopefully we can step forward and do a good job for the rest of the season in the Pro12.
"Yesterday against Oyonnax was a good step forward, Ruan (Pienaar) wasn't playing and we had full confidence in what Paul Marshall could deliver.
"Ian Humphreys delivered off the bench, Rory Best sat on the bench because he had a back problem but Rob Herring did a fantastic job for us.
"So, there are a lot of plusses that we can take and we must leverage that to make us a stronger force."
Saturday's performance should come accompanied with an asterisk given the paucity of the opposition, but there were plenty of positives.
Jared Payne was outstanding at full-back and will give Joe Schmidt plenty to think about as he considers his options ahead of the Six Nations.
The Kiwi has won all 10 of his caps at centre, but he looked comfortable in his old No 15 jersey, running some brilliant counter-attacking lines and bringing others into play before scoring a try of his own.
"We'll use him in both, without a doubt," Kiss said of his versatility.
"Coming back from his foot injury, from our perspective and his perspective, to start from No 15 was a good way to work his way back into the game. He finished the game at No 13 and you could see his influence there as well.
"He's a class player. You could play him at No 10 and he'd do a job for you. It's nice to have him back, that's for sure. Not only from our perspective, but also for Ireland.
"When he's got the extra space, he plays it exceptionally well. However, I've seen enough of him - and we all have - to know that when he hasn't got that space, he's still very savvy to be able to pick the line he needs to.
"With space and without space he is effective and I think we saw today a bit of both.
"When he came in and had to fill up that frontline at 13, he had enough nous to work to the plan and our shape, to actually just release the ball to space and place himself to be able to connect the game into areas that we've got numbers."
Rob Herring, standing in for Ireland captain Best, got the show on the road with an early try from close range, before Darren Cave, Rory Scholes and the impressive Sean Reidy secured the bonus point before half-time.
Craig Gilroy, Robbie Diack, Payne and Humphreys all crossed after the interval to complete a rout that came up just short of breaking Ulster's European records for winning margin and total points.
It would all prove to be in vain, however, as the twin defeats to Saracens and the failure to pick up a winning bonus in France came back to haunt them.
"The two critical games were the Saracens games. We would have liked to have won the one at home, but we should have got a point out of one of them, that's for sure," Kiss said.
"Of those two games, if we'd gotten one point then that makes the difference.
"We played against probably the best team in Europe in the way they go about their business who play for the 80 minutes, and that's where we have to grow our team and our mindset and how we go about our business."
Ulster -J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave (R Scholes 62), L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson (I Humphreys 52- 71, 78), P Marshall (D Shanahan 69), K McCall (C Black 6), R Herring (capt) (R Best 74), R Lutton, A O'Connor, F van der Merwe (R Wilson 52), R Diack, S Reidy, N Williams (C Ross 60).
Oyonnax - F Denos; D Ikpefan, G Bousses, A Taufa (E Sheridan 66), D Codjo; R Clegg (R Lespinas 57), J Blanc; S Tonga'uiha (L Delboubles 67), T Bordes (J Marourard 52), G Vepkhvadze (H Pungea ht), L Power (F Metz 52, M Fa'asavalu 69), V Ursache, P Gunther, P Wannenburg.
Ref - M Mitrea (Italy)