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All change at Ulster rugby but will there be a change in the side's fortunes?

Questions remain over dual role for Kiss Trying times: How will Ulster cope when Les Kiss is away on Ireland duty

By Niall Crozier

On the eve of the new rugby season, Ulster supporters' thoughts are dominated by two considerations. How will their side fare, minus the services of three of last season's tight-five forwards, and what is going to happen when stand-in director of rugby Les Kiss heads off to join Ireland for the three matches in November and the five RBS 6 Nations?

Ulster Rugby chiefs are keeping their cards close to their chests, refusing all media requests for interviews on the subject.

Neither chief executive Shane Logan nor Les Kiss is willing to field questions, though yesterday's response to yet another request for an audience was that they hope be able to provide eagerly-awaited answers in the next few weeks.

The problem stems from Kiss's dual status. As an IRFU employee he wears two hats – assistant to Ireland's head coach Joe Schmidt and, in tandem with that, Ulster's director of rugby/head coach.

Granted, the timing of David Humphreys' unexpected announcement he was off to Gloucester and Ulster's subsequent decision to axe coach Mark Anscombe could not have been worse. By late June, any possible replacements were already committed to contracts elsewhere.

Thus Kiss was sent north to fill both roles in Belfast whilst simultaneously continuing in his Ireland job as Schmidt's right-hand man.

On the day he announced Humphreys' departure, Logan said there would be a new director of rugby at Ulster.

But he also undertook a review and, in due course, we will see if he is still of the opinion that Ulster need both a director of rugby AND a head coach, or if – having had time to ponder a little – there has been a change of mind.

More importantly, might there have been a change of heart in Dublin 4? After all, Leinster, Munster and Connacht have one man, not two. It is conceivable that the IRFU may wish to bring Ulster into line with the other provinces.

When Kiss was sent north in July, it was with the label 'interim director of rugby' pinned to his coat. The expectation is that he will remain in that role for the duration of this season now starting. But he will remain in his Ireland job, too. Hence Ulster fans' concern over what exactly happens in November and again in February-March.

The latest news from the Kingspan Stadium is that, with Logan's review now complete, new structures are in place and the recruitment for a full-time director of rugby will be carried out in accordance with those. One suspects that the IRFU's input to the process will have been considerable.

Whether or not the incumbent, when named, will also serve as head coach remains to be seen. The promise is that all will be made plain in the not too distant future.

As for who will act in Kiss's absence in November and the New Year, former Ulster and Ireland centre Maurice Field, who nowadays works as a broadcast pundit, sees no cause for concern.

He said: "The IRFU are obviously working on coach development throughout Ireland. They are keen to bring through indigenous coaches, so we've seen Anthony (Foley) taking over at Munster.

"And I think they possibly see Doakie (Neil Doak) and Dinger (Jonathan Bell) as potential indigenous coaches here in Ulster too, though maybe at this moment they aren't quite experienced enough at that level.

"Les coming in brings continuity with what Joe (Schmidt) has within the Irish set-up, which is the template he introduced at Leinster where it worked so well. He has now brought that same success into the Ireland team.

"So I think there is now an attempt to replicate that template here in Ulster. That's why I think Les is putting the structures in place so that when he's away in the autumn and again for the Six Nations, they will be able to continue in his absence.

"It's not as if he's going to the southern hemisphere; he's only going to be down the road, so he will be in contact with the coaching staff here and players who are available (for Ulster) during the autumn series."

Kiss's being in Ulster does mean that Schmidt's way of doing things will be brought north. And that has proved to be a successful template.

Field added: "We've all heard a lot about lessons being learnt as a result of Ulster not having managed to win finals and semi-finals. But we haven't quite been able to pick up gold, despite all these lessons supposedly having been learnt.

"So what Les will be looking for is to see these guys being able to operate under pressure and make the right decision at the right time when they're physically and mentally shattered.

"In the past we've made the wrong decisions in those situations, whereas if you look at Leinster they have always had the individuals to perform at that top level when they're absolutely out on their feet. And that's the difference between winning silverware and not.

"That's the level Ulster will be training at now under Les, so that even if he isn't there the coaches and players will be able to continue the good habits he has brought."

Belfast Telegraph


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