Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss is expecting six difficult pool fixtures in next season’s Champions Cup, but the Australian is already looking forward to the challenge that Wasps, La Rochelle and Harlequins will present.
Today’s Champions Cup draw saw Ulster slot into Pool 1 alongside two-time European Cup champions Wasps, French newcomers La Rochelle and London-based Harlequins.
Wasps and La Rochelle highlighted their consistent quality by topping their respective Aviva Premiership and Top 14 tables this term, while Harlequins also boast a squad that is brimming with talent.
“It’s a very exciting pool, I’ve got to say,” enthused Les Kiss. “You look at what Wasps can deliver and the type of rugby they play, it’s quite formidable really. La Rochelle are a very good attacking team that have immense power up front. ‘Quins will always back themselves to perform as well. They will undoubtedly be six very tough fixtures, but that is what you expect in this competition.”
In analysing the opposition further, Kiss highlighted just how testing the encounters will be, adding: “Wasps – you can only expect that they’re going to strengthen in the off-season. We play them in a friendly in August so we’ll both get a taste of each other.
“They’ve done well in their move to the Ricoh Arena and have generated good support there. They’re a quality side and Dai Young has done a great job in terms of building that consistency over the last few years.
“La Rochelle will be another really exciting challenge. We have an understanding of the type of quality that they have got in their pack – guys like Victor Vito, who was someone that we had a little look at. Their pack is massive, which is similar to what we faced against Bordeaux and Clermont last year. You’ve got to stay fresh at the right time of the season to take them on.
“It’s a nice place to visit as well, a beautiful place on the seaside, so it will be a great opportunity for our supporters to visit a good spot. They’ve got a really good following there so it will be interesting to experience that.
“Harlequins have so many brilliant players throughout their squad who have performed well in the international arena. Their team has a strong, experienced spine and that’s very important in big European games. They’re an extremely tough team to beat at the Stoop. John Kingston has been there for a year or two now and he’s slowly putting his mark on their team. I think they’re going to be quite a proposition in the season to come, both domestically and in Europe.”
While much of the discussions will be around the quality of the opposition, Kiss is excited by the introduction of new coaches and players into the environment at Ulster.
“We’ve got the new coaching team announced, with Jono (Gibbes), Dwayne (Peel) and Aaron (Dundon) coming in. Those boys will be on the ground in the last week of June, ready to begin on July 3. Obviously we won’t have all of our players together until August due to the players’ involvement with the Lions, Ireland and the Ireland Under-20s.
“But all of the guys are excited about next season, that’s for sure. Hard work lies ahead, but that’s what is going to be required because not only is the Champions Cup going to be a massive challenge, but the PRO12 as well,” he concluded.