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'We want whole people; we don't just want obsessive robots'

Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss tells The42 about being the boss.

LES KISS WAS 50 when Ulster appointed him as their director of rugby. He was 50 by the time he got to be the boss.

There was a stint as co-head coach of rugby league’s London Broncos back in 1999, but Kiss was an assistant for the vast majority of his union coaching career up until taking on the Ulster job last year.

Ulster’s head coach Les Kiss Kiss is in his second season as Ulster's director of rugby. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The lengthy periods as support to the likes of Ewen McKenzie and Joe Schmidt weren’t simply because Kiss failed to land a big job of his own.

The former rugby league international is held in the highest regard within his industry; he could have had a head coaching or director of rugby gig long before accepting Ulster’s approach last year.

A deep thinker on rugby and sport, Kiss hasn’t ever been in a rush.

“I’ve been in the game long enough to see many people be too ambitious to get somewhere and before they know it they’ve actually burnt themselves out or maybe it just wasn’t the right timing,” says Kiss.

I’ve tried to be patient with that so when I get to that right level, hopefully I’ve garnered enough wisdom.”

Certainly, the impression is that Kiss has assembled more than enough knowledge to be qualified for the task of turning Ulster into trophy winners. That task begins again on Friday evening with a Guinness Pro12 opener at home to Newport Gwent Dragons.

Journalists enjoy speaking with Kiss due to his willingness to engage and actually answer questions; players love working with him on account of his outstanding technical, mental and tactical knowledge of the oval ball game.

An Australia international in league as a player, Kiss’ coaching career started in the 13-man code before a switch into union led to a role as South Africa’s defence coach in 2001 under Harry Viljoen.

“Harry is probably not a widely known name here, but he was the head of the Springboks when he asked me to come in,” says Kiss. “The style he had was to empower people and I learned a lot in that period about how, as a leader, he extended trust.

“If you are extended that trust, how do you return it? If it’s given to you, you’ve got to be very trustworthy and return it in like.”

Joe Schmidt and Ewen McKenzie McKenzie, Kiss and Schmidt. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Kiss moved on to the Waratahs’ Super Rugby set-up in 2002, where he learned from Bob Dwyer – who led Australia to the 1991 World Cup - and Ewen McKenzie, another man who coached the Wallabies but now appears lost to rugby.

Dwyer is well-known as a sometimes controversial pundit these days, but he taught Kiss valuable lessons.

“Bob was always a person that I could go to and ask questions, and get feedback,” says Kiss. “He has just a really… simple is the wrong word because it might make it sound easy… but he un-complicates complicated things into the specifics that matter about a certain position or a certain skill set. I picked up a lot off him in those regards.”

McKenzie took over at the Waratahs in 2003 and, along with Kiss, helped the Australian franchise into Super Rugby finals in 2005 and 2008. Both years, the Dan Carter and Richie McCaw-era Crusaders denied them glory.

Kiss’ key learnings in that time were around “structuring a programme” in order to build and maintain a successful club. McKenzie – a qualified town planner – hasn’t been involved in professional rugby since leaving the Wallabies job in 2014, but was working as a ‘project chief‘ for an investment group last year.

Declan Kidney called Kiss to Ireland in time for the Australian’s defensive mastery to have a major influence on the 2009 Grand Slam. Ireland conceded just three tries in that victorious championship; a fine start to Kiss’ tenure.

We know the Ireland years of Kiss’ career more intimately, of course, and particularly the time he spent as trusted assistant to Joe Schmidt. Two further Six Nations titles followed in that era.

“He’s been a good influence on where I am now,” says Kiss when Schmidt’s name comes up, and the pair remain close friends even with their priorities now having shifted in slightly different directions.

“The relationship just grows and moves to another layer of existence, because, before, I hope I did as much as I could to support his vision and deliver that. I’m pretty comfortable that I did that.

“Now it’s imbued on me to make sure that I can deliver on behalf of the IRFU as well, because part of my remit is to support that, but also to ensure that Ulster is not left wanting in certain areas.

Les Kiss and Joe Schmidt Kiss and Schmidt formed a formidable coaching duo. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I have to fight for certain things, sure, but I don’t think it changes the relationship with Joe. It just moves to another level of understanding of each other. We’re both mature enough to understand that.”

Schmidt, McKenzie, Dwyer and others have influenced Kiss’ methods and thinking, but he is very much an independent thinker.

While assimilating information and learning as much as possible from more experienced figures along the way has been vital, Kiss stresses that he must march to his own beat now that he is the man in charge at Ulster.

He uses the legendary Dwyer as a means to illustrate the point.

“Some of my beliefs about where I’ve come to would be totally opposite to what he believes now, without a doubt,” says Kiss. “But I don’t think anyone should be a robot. Of course, you have a mentor who you’ve looked up to, but you’ve got to be your own man.

That’s what you live and die with at the end of the day. On my last day at Ulster I’d like to stand up and say, ‘I ran it how I’d like to and worked with the challenges I had, and hopefully achieved some great things.’ That’s important to me.”

Still less than a year into his directorship at the province, Kiss seems utterly comfortable and content in the position.

The biggest challenges so far have been ensuring that the culture within Ulster’s squad is where he wants it to be, and also going from a role where he delivered the strategy to being the man in charge of forming the strategy.

“When you’re not right at the top, you have less to do with the overarching strategy,” explains Kiss. “Tactically and technically, you’re more in the delivery to actually reach that end. I now try to make sure I drive that strategy part of it right and I dip down into the technical detail as I need to.”

As an assistant coach, Kiss had been accustomed to being a figure who was always delivering the technical detail to players on the training pitch. He will continue to bring that strength to Ulster, but delegation is crucial for any director of rugby.

Les Kiss celebrates Kiss had many successes with Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I’ve got some really good coaches around me,” says Kiss. “Neil Doak is a very good operator. Some of the backs stuff he does is second to none in my eyes, he’s brilliant.

“Allen Clarke is a good, experienced coach as well. He’s been in the system, knows a lot of people here inside out, and over the water. Niall Malone is well renowned for being really exceptional at some of the basic skills that he provides.

“Joe Bakarat covers all of that contact area. I’ve got good coaches around which helps to be able to deliver that technical and tactical side.”

Kiss isn’t certain that ‘culture’ sums up what he wants from his Ulster squad away from the pitch, but he is sure that creating a meaning that marries with rugby is crucial to any success the province is going to have.

“How a player thinks is important to me,” Kiss explains. “Thinking precedes any other form of action and if you call it ‘culture’ that’s fine.

“It’s a word that’s used widely, but I think that’s the starting point in how you build something of common meaning and purpose, common standards of behaviour, how you go about your business, what you’re prepared to sacrifice.”

You want good people with good habits, an open mindset, people being prepared to sacrifice – but more important than just being prepared to sacrifice, knowing what to sacrifice and when to sacrifice.

“The game should be kept in balance and we want whole people; we don’t just want obsessive robots.

“We want people who are engaged at many levels in this game in Ulster and who understand that their part in this is bigger than the game.

“It’s a team that’s doing a lot for the community up in Ulster and that’s important to us. Ultimately, there’s a part of culture that comes from tapping down to the most important component and that’s the 80 minutes on game day.”

Last season’s version of Ulster under Kiss were certainly pleasant on the eye when it came to game day, and style of play is important to this group.

Les Kiss with the Pro12 trophy A trophy has eluded Ulster for too long. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Their intelligent passing, sharp set-piece striking and incisive counter-attacking appear to be parts of the agreed philosophy, but Kiss says balance is always required.

“There are a few things that we’d like teams to say about us, without doubt. That’s a personal thing to us. But we’re also cognisant of that fact that you can get caught up in aesthetics. You still have to have a certain amount of pragmatism.

“We also don’t want to undersell ourselves. I think there’s a skill set there that should be expressed and allowed to be expressed. But we’ve got to find the right things in terms of how you exist, your actions, your habits that allow you be able to do that on a consistent basis without going down a cul-de-sac or falling off the edge without having a way to get out it.

“A wise man just said to me recently, ‘Any good idea needs good landing gear.’

“We understand our style internally, we’re certainly developing and have a vision. But it’s not removed from the other elements of the game. If our defence or our set-piece isn’t up to scratch, then our attack may have to adapt at any given time.”

Kiss is clearly relishing having control of the Ulster ship. As ever, he comes across as a man who lives and breathes the game, who has pondered and discussed each and every aspect of rugby.

He says he is enjoying the responsibility, but ends by pointing out that he needs balance as much as anyone else does.

“In the end I hope I move closer and closer to the point where I become less important,” says Kiss.

“That doesn’t mean you’re not important, but you want the group to be as self-sufficient as possible at every level, but at the same time drive standards, drive how we do things in a way that equals what we want to be perceived as. Every day, I’m enjoying it. There’s never a moment that you’re thinking you need a break.

“If you do it right, you get the balance right. I try to make sure I take those couple of hours to spend with my wife and a couple of hours to do a couple of things I need to do to ensure I’m fresh during the season.

“Pick the moments to have the break, it’s absolutely vital. Right through my career, I’ve been very patient in terms of how I accelerate, where I want to be at any given time, and understand that I have to grow and pick the right moments.”

- A previous version of this article said Ulster open their Pro12 campaign against Cardiff Blues on Saturday. They host Newport Gwent Dragons on Friday. 

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Murray Kinsella

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