Six Nations 2016: Les Kiss says holders Ireland will contend again
|RBS Six Nations|
|Dates: Saturday, 6 February - Saturday, 19 March|
|Coverage: Live coverage of eight games on BBC One and BBC One HD. Minute-by-minute coverage of all the home nations' games on BBC Radio 5 live and 5 live sports extra, and across the BBC's digital platforms.|
Ulster's director of rugby Les Kiss says Ireland can still mount a strong defence of their Six Nations title despite the struggles of the country's provincial teams in Europe this season.
No Irish province has reached the knockout stages of the European Cup for the first time since 1997-98.
However, Kiss believes the Irish can still challenge strongly to win a third straight Six Nations title.
"I think you will see some good (Irish) performances," added the Ulster boss.
Kiss has extensive knowledge of the Joe Schmidt's current Ireland set-up having worked as his assistant before moving to take the Ulster role after the World Cup three months ago.
"When you pull on the Irish jersey, you become part of a good collective like we've been.
Wales a 'difficult opener' - Kiss
"I think we've got some great players in the country and without a doubt, we will see that in the Six Nations."
Kiss acknowledges that Ireland will face a "difficult opener" against Wales in Dublin on 7 February but he remains optimistic about the prospects for Schmidt's side with players such as Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw coming back to fitness after missing much of the recent provincial campaigns.
"I know the boys and how they will be building up to the Six Nations.
"I expect it will be a tough campaign but there are a lot of positives to take into the season with some players coming back into form."
Kiss' Ulster side rounded off the European Champions Cup Pool 4 campaign with a 56-3 win over Oyonnax on Saturday but it didn't prove enough to earn them one of the best three runners-up spots which would have secured a quarter-final place.
Ultimately, Ulster's failure to notch a losing bonus point in the two defeats by Saracens cost them a last-eight spot even though they managed impressive home and away wins over Toulouse.
"We missed a point here or there during the campaign and we had to rely and wait on other people doing a job for us at the weekend and that wasn't ideal," said Kiss.
"We're disappointed but by the same token, there is a lot to like about what we did in the campaign which we will take some positives from."
Kiss now wants his team to build on Saturday's impressive eight-try victory over the Top 14 side when they take on Treviso in Italy this weekend.
Ulster will go into Saturday's contest sixth in the table and hoping to push their way upwards in order to make absolutely certain of a European Champions Cup spot for next season.
As it stands, Ulster are in a qualifying position - but only just - as the seven qualifiers from the Pro12 for next year's European competition must also include the leading Italian outfit, who currently are 10th-place Zebre.
"The next six games are very important in the context of the Pro12," added Kiss.
"To position ourselves, we have to start well against Treviso. The intensity we brought out the other day against Oyonnax has to be replicated."