Les Kiss knows Ulster have it all to do following PRO12 defeat to Scarlets
Guiness PRO12: Scarlets 16 Ulster 13
ULSTER boss Les Kiss knows his team have it all to do to get back in Guinness PRO12 play-off contention after losing out narrowly to top-four rivals Scarlets.
But Kiss, who must rally his Ulster defeated troops for a Champions Cup away clash against Exeter Chiefs next weekend, was quick to stress that he believes Ulster are still contenders in the Pro12 campaign. Scarlets battled through the rain to a 16-13 win over Ulster at Parc y Scarlets on Friday night - assisted in no small measure by a controversial penalty try.
World rugby's new high-tackle directives are less than a week old but were felt quickly and painfully by Ulster after Scarlets were awarded a penalty try in the second-half. Ulster also had Sean Reidy sent to the sin bin by referee Marius Mitrea for a high tackle on replacement scrum-half Aled Davies.
But despite the defeat, which leaves Ulster occupying a central PRO12 table position with 33 points after 12 games, seven adrift of Scarlets and eight behind fourth-placed Glasgow Warriors, Kiss is is aiming for his side to "dust off and get up for two big European games'' with the added prospect of injured players returning to the squad down the line.
“I thought we probably would have better return from it if things had gone our way,'' said Kiss, whose Ulster side had led 13-6 at the break.
“We controlled that first-half, I thought we were superb with retention of ball, but we were not as clinical as we needed to be at the start of the second half and gave them a bit of life and traction into the game. We are not in the ideal position, but we are still contenders.
“The players certainly believe it in the sheds and we have to make sure we dust off and get up for two big European games against two big teams and then get back on the horse for the PRO12. It will be an important Six Nations period for us, we will have injured players hopefully coming back by then which will be a big plus for us and just give our squad a bit of depth.”
Rory Best, Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall had returned for Ulster against Scarlets but Ruan Pienaar was injured. And Ulster ace Louis Ludik says that despite the present pain of the Scarlets defeat, Ulster “will work harder than ever'' as the Champions Cup clash with Exeter Chiefs looms large.
“It's a very tough one to take,'' said the 30-year-old South African.
“The conditions were very difficult, but I thought we controlled the game well and were strong defensively. However, we made some small mistakes that they were able to capitalise on. Sometimes, things go against you,'' he said.
“We had a few opportunities in their '22', particularly in the second half, but we just weren't clinical enough. We've just got to keep working on the things that we've struggled with in the past couple of weeks and take our chances better."
Meanwhile, next week's Euro opponents, Exeter Chiefs, extended their unbeaten run in the Aviva Premiership to six games after they shared the spoils with reigning champions Saracens at a packed out Allianz Park at the weekend.
Rob Baxter’s side bossed the opening 40 minutes to lead 10-3 at the break thanks to a Gareth Steenson penalty and a converted try from Jack Nowell, but it was the Londoners - who lost prop Richard Barrington to a red card after 15 minutes - who proved the stronger in the second period.
“I think we have to be disappointed,” said Baxter.
“To play with 15 men against 14 for so long and to get a little bit of space on the scoreboard and not convert more of the chances we created, especially five metres out, has ultimately cost us.
The Chiefs may rue missed opportunities, but they can reflect on a positive three-week period that has seen them claim victories over Leicester Tigers and Bath, as well as claiming this latest draw against Sarries.
A wounded Ulster side await.