Tuesday 20 February 2018

Kiss gambles by holding big guns in reserve

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Back in November, when this game was originally fixed, Les Kiss named his strongest Ulster side possible to face Oyonnax, but with an eye on the upcoming schedule the Australian has opted to play the long game this time around.

Knowing the Top 14 strugglers are out of Europe and focusing on league survival, and with an away trip to play Saracens to come next weekend, the director of rugby is hoping that he can still get the necessary result despite making a couple of changes to his team after last week's defeat to Munster.

So, Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar drop to the bench, while Andrew Trimble is rested altogether with the busy next few weeks in mind.

South African prop Wiehann Herbst has failed to recover from injury in time to take his place, but there is a welcome return to injury for Craig Gilroy who lines out at full-back.

Kiss has clearly put an emphasis on forward dominance as Rory Best continues at hooker, with the Ireland star part of an experienced and explosive pack that will hope to dominate and allow Ian Humphreys get his backline moving on the 4G surface at Oyonnax.

Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall continue their centre partnership and are up against Meathman Eamonn Sheridan, while ex-Ulster No 8 Pedrie Wannenburg gets a chance to impress against his former club.

Nick Williams is kept in reserve, with Roger Wilson joined by Ireland internationals Robbie Diack and Chris Henry in the back-row, while the second-row of Lewis Stevenson and Franco van der Merwe performed well against Munster and will hope to dominate their hosts.

Oyonnax are second from bottom in the French league, but have named a stronger than anticipated side for this clash given their next Top 14 game is three weeks away.

Their attack has struggled to get going, but it is without the ball where they have really struggled and Ulster will hope to get their pacey backs moving despite the rain forecast.

Kiss and Neil Doak's clever set-piece moves should help unlock the leaky Oyonnax defence and, having been so inaccurate on their visits to Munster territory last weekend, they will be determined to make every chance count this time around.

Given their home defeat to Saracens put them on the back foot from the off in Pool 1, the back-to-back wins over Toulouse have put Ulster in a decent position.

A home quarter-final may be beyond them given they trail the English champions by 10 points, but a bonus-point win here would go a long way towards pointing them in the direction of the last eight.

By playing at pace and moving the home side around, they should be able to find and exploit gaps in the Oyonnax defence, with the option of sending McCloskey up the middle and freeing his hands always available.

If things are getting sticky, they have the luxury of being able to introduce Pienaar, Jackson and Williams into the fray to change things up, but Paul Marshall and Humphreys must be relishing this rare chance to impress on the European stage from the start.

Throw in the appearance of highly-rated academy prospect Sammy Arnold and Rory Scholes on the wings and there is plenty of motivation for the visitors to perform with some big games to come in the next two weeks.

That will only be the case if they can get the result and they should really be targeting 10 points from their two games against the French side either side of their meeting with Saracens at Allianz Park next week.

Despite the changes, Kiss will expect a response to the Munster loss and a result to boot.

Verdict: Ulster

OYONNAX - Q Etienne; D Codjo, A Taufa, E Sheridan, U Tawulo; N Robinson, J Blanc, L Delboulbes, J Maurouard, M Clerc; G Robson, F Metz; P Gunther, M Fa'asavulu, P Wannenburg. Reps: T Bordes, S Wright, H Pungea, L Power, V Maafu, A Aziza, R Clegg, D Ikpefan.

ULSTER - C Gilroy; S Arnold, L Marshall, S McCloskey, R Scholes; I Humphreys, P Marshall; K McCall, R Best (capt), R Lutton; L Stevenson, F van der Merwe; R Diack, C Henry, R Wilson. Reps: R Herring, C Black, B Ross, N Williams, Sean Reidy, R Pienaar, P Jackson, L Ludik.

Ref - L Pearce (England)

Oyonnax v Ulster, live, Sky Sports 2, tomorrow 1.00pm

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