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Ulster supremo Les Kiss: Irish can be world champs one day

By Steven Beacom

Les Kiss is convinced that Ireland can become World Cup winners in the future despite having never got beyond the quarter-final stage in previous tournaments.

Ireland entered the 2015 World Cup with optimism that they could go far and perhaps even all the way to the decider at Twickenham, but Joe Schmidt's men were knocked out in the last eight by an inspired Argentina side.

For Kiss, in his last competition as part of the Irish coaching unit before taking over as Ulster's Director of Rugby, and the rest of those involved in the squad it was a bitter blow.

"There was nothing other than disappointment for us," says Kiss four months on from New Zealand beating his native Australia in the final.

"Going into the tournament we had a nine and 10 who were established in Conor (Murray) and Sexto (Johnny Sexton). There was no ambiguity in that area unlike at the previous World Cup. That gave us certainty and we felt we had a good chance of making an impact.

"But in the quarter-finals we met a hot team on the day. In that game we went well behind and showed great character to come back. Ultimately it wasn't enough.

"I don't think you could fault how we prepared and what the players tried to do on a daily basis to make themselves better but in that match it just didn't happen that day. It was very disappointing to go out at that stage but we have to move on."

To date in the Six Nations, Ireland appear to be suffering from a World Cup hangover having lost two out of the opening three games to France and England and drawing the other one with Wales.

Kiss hopes to see the Irish, who have not been helped by injuries to key personnel, finish the campaign with victories over Scotland and Italy in their remaining fixtures.

As for World Cups in years to come, when asked if Ireland could ever win the competition, Kiss is positive.

"Yes, without a doubt I believe they can," says the 51-year-old.

"The mindset about that has to be that you can. If you don't think you can it won't be possible. I do believe that there are enough good people in the system to ensure that the pathways are maintained in a proper way to be able to do it."

Chances of glory would increase if Ireland's bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup is successful. Matches would be played in Northern Ireland as well as the Republic.

"It would be massive to have a World Cup in Ireland," said Kiss (pictured).

"What it would do for Ulster and all the other provinces would be unbelievable. I also think it would be a smart move by World Rugby to bring it to Ireland because while people here would embrace the rugby there would be so much more to come out of the tournament apart from that. I feel an incredible product would be delivered and rugby would be better for it."

Kiss may be working full-time with Ulster, but still has great affection and loyalty towards the Irish team in a relationship that started back in 2009 when then coach Declan Kidney asked him to come on board.

It could have been different because after impressing as the South African defensive coach and doing fine work in Australia, Kiss was approached to become the main man with Leicester Tigers.

"I was just about to sign as Head Coach of Leicester in 2008 when Declan phoned me about Ireland," he recalled.

"I had just about agreed the Leicester deal. It hadn't been signed off and we were in the final parts of negotiation and then the Ireland chance came from left field.

"My wife's sister, who is 10 years her junior, some time ago said she was going to go round the world and the first place she went to was Cork. She met a guy called Alan Cummins, son of the famous Kilkenny hurler Frank Cummins, and they got married so when we first came to Ireland there was an attachment which was nice for my wife."

In his first year as defensive coach, Ireland won the Grand Slam for the first time since 1948, with that unforgettable victory over Wales in Cardiff clinching the historic success after Stephen Jones failed to kick a last gasp penalty for the home side.

"That was a special group of players and they wanted something big before it was all over. The place was screaming for success. We had a little bit of luck in that tournament but I don't think anything was going to stop us on that last day in Wales," says Kiss.

"I remember that final penalty with our guys just standing and daring him to kick it over. We always felt it was going to drop short. That was special. I have to say that was probably the highlight of my coaching career. I knew it was big but at the time didn't fully realise to what degree it meant to the people of Ireland.

"Then to get back into Dublin and to see 15,000 to 20,000 people in Dawson Street and to hear everybody talking about what the team had done and how great they felt, I was pretty blown away by it. It certainly forged my connection with the green jersey."

Quizzed about his own particular impact that year, Kiss said: "Declan had a view on things and Gert Smal (also on the Ireland coaching staff) and I were probably critical to his plans. The players were ripe for a different voice, a different approach, a different language. Everything fell into the right place I guess. We weren't just along for the ride and the players wanted to make something happen. With the group we wanted to forge something great."

Within four years, and with results disappointing, Kidney had gone. A hole needed to be filled, albeit temporarily, for a tour to North America, and Kiss had to step up to coach the country.

"There were mixed feelings," he admits.

"It was difficult with Declan going and I did feel for him but the truth is it had to be picked up and I had a duty to keep the place as positive and energetic as possible forging ahead with purpose and meaning for the job to be filled eventually. I wasn't going to waste that opportunity for myself or waste it for a group of players that I was very fond of."

Kiss stayed on when Schmidt, who he knew from their days coaching in Australia, was appointed as number one. They stayed together until the Ulster Director of Rugby post came up.

"When Joe took over it was a natural transition to stay together. We worked off each other and it was brilliant," he says.

Asked how he feels when Ulster players are on Ireland duty, weakening his team, Kiss states: "I have been on both sides of the fence. I don't lament on what I don't have. I don't lament injuries either.

"I can only be engaged with the people who are in the game day 15 or 23. It doesn't mean I don't care or have feelings about the guys in the national camp or the injured players who are important to us, but the only thing that matters on game day is the players you have in front of you ready to play. You have got to deal with what is and not what isn't.

"I want to put as many Ulster players as possible in a green jersey because that will mean our players are reaching high standards and dreams are coming true."

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