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Passionate Kiss

The Aussie is soon to head back to the Ireland set-up as assistant coach. But don't be surprised if Ulster's outgoing interim director of rugby makes a return to the newly rebranded Kingspan Stadium

By Michael Sadlier

He's an obsessive bundle of energy, who is addicted to absorbing stats and whose love of attending to all manner of detail is well noted by all those who fall under his watch.

Sounds like any coach worth his salt, but Les Kiss is that bit different. He takes intensity to another level and his constant striving for innovation and improvement – the so-called 'choke tackle' being attributed to him, a technique Ireland have used in keeping an attacking player with the ball off the ground and forcing a turnover in possession – has seen his stock steadily rise in recent years, allowing him to dovetail well in his main job with that other notably hard taskmaster, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.

Not that the 49-year-old Australian has been content to hold down one job recently as he is also filling in as interim director of rugby at Ulster – though that time is drawing to a close – in the wake of their summer of turmoil which saw both former director of rugby David Humphreys and then former head coach Mark Anscombe leave Belfast.

He will now depart Ulster some time next month to take up his Ireland duties full-time, which was always on the cards anyway. We know Kiss can clearly take on a workload, but even he can't spread himself about thinly when there is a primary job to be done.

So, he is a hard worker but he is also a survivor, as over a decade in the coaching game testifies. Kiss is a man who has continually pushed himself on as he has gone along from international rugby league player to international rugby union coach, forging a reputation as a deep-thinker and achiever – after all, he was on the Ireland coaching ticket the year they won their first Grand Slam in 61 years back in 2009 and then again for last season's Six Nations title.

He is revered by players and that's where huge amounts of information about him largely end. Increasing his profile, or indeed having much of one in the first place isn't really part of his agenda.

He is no shrinking violet, though, and has been around a few corners in his time. Kiss has brought much value to Ireland as an assistant coach since coming on board in 2008, quite some feat when you consider that he has survived intact from the previous coaching regime under Declan Kidney.

His unexpected role at Ulster has, even by his standards, been low key. Up to last night's clash with Italian side Zebre – Ulster's first competitive home game of the season at their newly rebranded Kingspan Stadium – the only sign of Kiss being anywhere near such a thing as a microphone had come in an extremely brief interview granted to Sky Sports just prior to last Saturday's opening Guinness PRO12 game at the Scarlets in Wales.

Unsurprisingly, the vacuum has been filled by much speculation as to what is actually going on behind the scenes with his temporary charge here being only formally confirmed as having a short shelf-life only yesterday.

The Ulster players have all lauded his impact around the place and, indeed, his 'leasing out' by the IRFU from his main Dublin-based role has been a welcome move as it has brought some of the Schmidt-inspired way of doing things out of Ireland camps and back to Belfast.

When Kiss returns to Ireland duties ahead of this November's international games against South Africa, Australia and Georgia he will no longer be made available to Ulster as his workload will not only be too great, but the Australian will also be required to then prepare for the Six Nations in early 2015 as well as plotting the international side's hoped for progress at next autumn's World Cup which is primarily based in England with Ireland also detouring to Wales.

There have also been rumours doing the rounds that Kiss – who it is believed is contracted with Ireland up until the end of their World Cup programme – is understandably looking at bagging a head coaching job and that Ulster would be a perfect fit if only there was some wriggle room available to him.

Maybe so, but for now he will be quietly stepping aside over the next few weeks, allowing Ulster to present whoever they might have found to take the job on full-time, whether that be someone from overseas – Kiwi Wayne Smith being a name which has been thrown into the mix – or through an in-house appointment, which could see assistant coach Neil Doak step up.

It's all a far cry from where things began for him back in Queensland nearly 50 years ago and how his competitive fire drove the young Kiss on to carve out a mark for himself in rugby league.

He could mix it with the best and quickly became established as a resilient winger with an eye for the line, but also the posts as he developed into a handy goalkicker as well.

Kiss broke through to the Queensland side and made the right impression in the State of Origin series and in his debut year back in 1986 he was called up by Australia, but he only played four times for the Kangaroos as a knee injury on their tour to Britain ensured that he was never quite the same player after he battled back to play.

Not content to leave the game – he retired in the early 1990s – Kiss began to look into coaching as a way to give direction to his burning desire to remain involved. And having a personality that refuses to accept the ordinary and strives to find new ways of doing things he began to make an impression.

Conventionality was anathema to Kiss and he even studied and worked in other sports to import ideas which gradually led him down the path of working towards majoring on defensive structures.

He worked in rugby league – for a time he was interim coach at the London Broncos at the end of the 1990s – and Aussie Rules with the big break arriving in 2001 when he transferred his skills to rugby union as South Africa defensive coach where his influence was widely noted.

That was followed by a spell back home with NSW Waratahs where he further honed his craft before 2008 came along and a decision had to be made to either work at Leicester Tigers or join Kidney's Ireland set-up.

He chose the latter and in his first season working with Kidney, Ireland claimed the Grand Slam in dramatic manner at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.

His stock took another rise and hit a high point when his 'choke tackles' were unleashed against his native land in Ireland's seismic victory over Australia during the group stages of 2011's World Cup.

Even though it became clear by 2013 that Kidney's tenure as Ireland coach was coming to an end, Kiss survived the cull and was kept on as interim head coach during the short tour to America that summer ahead of new man Schmidt – appointed after a highly successful spell with Leinster and already familiar with Kiss's attributes – taking charge last autumn.

The Kiwi kept him on and they clearly work well together with ample proof produced in last November's heart-stopping last-minute defeat at the hands of World Cup holders New Zealand and their dramatic success in Paris last March when Ireland sensationally lifted the Six Nations title in Brian O'Driscoll's last game in green.

Now, though, he prepares to head back to the main job though the time he has had here might have further persuaded him that he must take the next step and finally do the head coach thing.

Rest assured, he will have given it plenty of detailed thought.

A life so far...

  • Born: December 9, 1964. He is a native of Bundaberg in Queensland, Australia
  • Playing career: Played rugby league for North Sydney Bears, Queensland and also represented Australia before injury forced his retirement in 1993
  • Coaching career: Rugby league, (1999) London Broncos. Rugby union, (1999-2001), South Africa defensive coach; (2002-2008) NSW Waratahs; (2008-present) Ireland defensive coach, interim head coach and assistant coach. (2014) Ulster interim director of rugby
  • He says: “I've always thought you can approach things from a different angle. That's one thing that's always kept me refreshed in terms of my coaching approach without losing sight of the basics.”
  • They say: “He brings a fresh environment to training and his precision for detail rubs off on you. The whole team are really enjoying him being here.” (Ulster player Stuart Olding)

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