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Great times ahead for Ulster if we just put our minds to it, insists Les Kiss

By Steven Beacom

Les Kiss is drawing a diagram. Our interview hasn't formally started yet but the chat about rugby is in full flow. He is explaining what sets apart a great forward from a good one and uses hastily produced artwork to illustrate it.

Ulster's Director of Rugby makes the point that the 'great forwards' never stop to admire what they have just done. They are constantly on the move, mentally and physically, forever seeking to have a major impact on the game.

The 51-year-old Australian is an engaging, intelligent character. He started out as a rugby league player and is now one of the most respected rugby union coaches around.

Sit with him for over an hour and you can tell why players like him... and more importantly why they listen to him.

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Kiss enjoys seeing others learn. He loves to learn too and by reading history books or getting out and about this well travelled individual always immerses himself in the culture of the country he is living in.

Right now that is Northern Ireland. He resides in Cherryvalley in east Belfast with his wife Julie and can rhyme off local street names, coffee shops and restaurants like a Dundonald taxi driver.

He talks knowingly about Gilnahirk Road, Kings Road and Ballyhackamore. Kiss has only been here for a matter of months but already has an acute awareness of his surroundings.

And he is relishing life as the most important and influential man in Ulster Rugby.

Back to back defeats in the Pro 12 against Scarlets and Cardiff Blues have disappointed after four wins in succession, but Kiss is not a man to dwell in the past, regardless of how recent.

The future is what counts and that means Friday night's home clash with Zebre.

Originally Kiss was appointed interim Director of Rugby at Ulster for a 12 week period in 2014, following the departure of Kiwi Mark Anscombe.

While in charge on a temporary basis, the Aussie impressed both Ulster players and officials, so it was no surprise that he was invited to return to the job permanently in November last year following the World Cup where he had been working on the coaching staff for Ireland.

"I haven't not enjoyed a day yet," he says of his time with Ulster so far.

"There have been a few bumps along the road but nothing major. I like to frame the stress or pressure as people call it as positive and energising. That's where you flourish."

Kiss adds 'the whole organisation' has responded to his arrival the way he had hoped, taking time to specifically praise his players and backroom team, some of whom he has known for years including Head Coach Neil Doak and Assistant Coach Allen Clarke, for the way they handled the change at the top.

"I had that 12 week period when they asked me to come in when I was with the Ireland team and that's when the situation prevailed that they said would you like to stay and we brokered the deal that I would come in full time after the World Cup," says Kiss, who has previously coached in South Africa and Australia.

"When they sat with me and talked about the ambition and the business plan my professional mind said yes. It sat in the right place in terms of opportunity but also in terms of what I was going to be working with and who I was going to be working with.

"From a family point of view it also worked. It was another opportunity to grow in my personal life plus come up here and explore another city and another way of life. All those things seemed to align in a nice place, though it's not always about things being nice, it's about getting results and getting the job done.

"When it came about it was very exciting once I put my head around it and at the same time I was very challenged by the fact that I would leave the Irish team because I had grown very fond of the challenges there, the people involved and what it means to be part of the green jersey."

Ulster players such as Rory Best, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble have played key roles in bringing success to that green jersey, with Six Nations titles and a Grand Slam when Kiss was Ireland's defence coach. What Ulster fans want to know is when silverware will come to the Kingspan Stadium.

The last time Ulster won a trophy (the Celtic League) was in 2006. Mark McCall, now Director of Rugby at top English Premiership outfit Saracens, was in charge. A decade and several coaches have come and gone since then.

Asked if the barren run is going to end, Kiss is intent that it will and is fiercely determined that during his time in charge Ulster will become a a highly successful unit.

He says: "I think it is only right to aspire to be as great as you can be and if you are as great as you can be you would expect to have a couple of trophies somewhere along the line.

"There are a lot of things needed to get there, like luck and belief and trust in the dark times, but I don't think it is wrong to expect it.

"I guess if there is a challenge with that it is how people want you to get there at times. It is not a straight line to it but why wouldn't people want to have that expectation in the team. I think the team expect it from themselves. We want to win.

"I'm not afraid to say that winning trophies is one of my goals, without a doubt. I don't want to come in here and just meander through. I want every day to matter.

"I don't make promises but I will commit to doing whatever is possible with this group of people to try and realise something great. The support from our fans is brilliant, the people are well educated in rugby and that keeps me on my toes. I can tell the supporters it won't always be brilliant but there are a group of really committed people here who want to make a difference and hopefully I can help make that difference."

When asked how, the answer from Kiss is illuminating. He doesn't just want Ulster players to be great on the pitch. He wants them to be great off it too, feeling that can lead to the glory days craved by all at the Kingspan Stadium.

"To me it starts with mindset," he says in a deliberate manner.

"I am massive into what can be done rather than why it can't be done. So just making sure people understand the language they use, the body language they use, the feedback they give, the way you look at someone.

"All these things matter to ensuring we are delivering opportunity, mindset, possibility thinking and that things are possible and that greatness is possible, not in an arrogant way but in a really decent way that respects the opportunity we have.

"That's away from the rugby, but is a key area. In a rugby sense we want to challenge the group to believe in and back their skill sets. There has always been a bit of that. I want to bring it all into a more potent, tactical mix and that's where I've been really pleased with someone like Paddy Jackson for example. He has lapped it up since I came in and has thrived.

"I do think a lot of things start first with mindset and building common purpose and meaning but it has to come to a point where it is expressed out on the pitch and delivered as wins.

"It is a complex formula but I challenge everyone every day whatever conversation they have to leave something good behind to the person you have been talking to.

"These little things all add up to big things and hopefully everyone is getting that confidence to say that we can win trophies because you have to believe you can.

"Hopefully it happens this year. If not I'd expect it to happen in the next couple of years."

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