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Kiss tells of loving life as main man at the Kingspan

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster Rugby still have plenty to play for over what they hope will be the last two weeks of their season, but given a chance of a moment of reflection, Les Kiss says he has enjoyed every minute of his first campaign at the helm.

Following a temporary role at the beginning of last season, after both director of rugby David Humphreys and head coach Mark Anscombe departed suddenly, the Australian arrived in a permanent capacity at the end of Ireland's World Cup campaign in the autumn and guided the side to a play-off spot that will bring a semi-final against Leinster in the RDS six days from now.

And after spending much of his career as an assistant - he joined the province after some seven seasons as Ireland's defence coach - Kiss has found the experience of heading up the ticket a hugely positive one.

"I've loved every minute," he enthused this week from deep inside a Murrayfield Stadium where he hopes to return for the Pro12 final in a fortnight's time.

"I've learnt a lot; I've grown a lot."I knew a lot of the group, but it's been great to sit in the dressing room with them as a whole squad, explore them as people, and find out where we want to go.

"Ambition is high here and that suits me. As a person I'm ambitious myself.

"In a nutshell, it's been an energising year. A long year, but I've found it fascinating."

Kiss knew many of his current squad from his days in the national set-up, but there were still a healthy number he had yet to work with.

The vast majority, it seems, have really responded to his methods.

"No one here at Ulster has ever said or written a bad word about him," Stuart McCloskey told Rugby World magazine.

"He's got all the guys playing together and we want to do him justice."

Not going so far as to describe himself as surprised by the performances of players previously on the fringes, Kiss said: "You sometimes see people on video, you research them and you do your due diligence on them just to see what these people are like.

"Someone like Pete Browne has come in and done really well. He's stepped up to every challenge.

"Sean Reidy was someone who had some potential, but knew he had to knuckle down. He's done that and got the rewards.

"Kyle McCall is regularly referenced as the hardest trainer in the team and has gotten some real rewards. Luke Marshall has reinvented himself as a 13 and that's been a pleasant story too.

"I wouldn't say I'm surprised by it all, but they've really responded to the challenges they've been set. They've worked hard for each other and filled the breach.

"That's added to the spirit and I've really enjoyed watching that grow. "The big challenge is now that we're not ready for it to finish yet."

Looking ahead to the showdown with Leinster next week, prop Wiehahn Herbst is Ulster's only fitness doubt.

While the likes of Tommy Bowe, Nick Williams, Dan Tuohy and Alan O'Connor have already been ruled out for the season, Herbst has been back in training for weeks after a foot injury that has kept him out since January.

"It's still a real day-by-day basis," he said.

"We've had it a few times this year, but there's a lot to go through with a tight-head.

"It's not only the scrum, but the line-out, the moving across the pitch, hitting rucks then being able to get up and get involved again quickly. There are a lot of things.

"It's been a long process, and a frustrating one for him, but it's close. We'll see.

"A pleasant one for us has been the growth of Ricky Lutton. He's had to step up and really has. He's done a great job and Andy Warwick has covered well too. That gives us some comfort."

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