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Ulster Rugby director Les Kiss can't wait to sink his teeth into new challenge

By Jonathan Bradley

The long wait is over and Ulster's new Director of Rugby Les Kiss finally has his feet under the table at the Kingspan.

The affable Aussie faced the media for the first time yesterday, just a few days before a slightly more daunting test when Ulster look for some joy on their travels when they take on Newport Gwent Dragons in the PRO12 on Sunday.

Here, Kiss talks about his new challenge, what changes he envisages and the short-term challenges and long-term prospects for the men in white.

Q: How does it feel to finally have arrived at Ulster?

LES KISS: I have been with the national team for seven and a half years and it has been a fantastic journey, I loved every minute of it.

When I was approached a year ago to do this, it was a great opportunity to consider and it has transpired that I took on the contract. It has been a long wait since.

It is certainly a relief to get in here and I am very much looking forward to what I can contribute to the Ulster cause.

Q: After taking an interim role last year, when the chance to return permanently came about, who made the first move?

LK: It came from the Ulster side. My remit and brief in that initial period was pretty clear at the beginning. I was away on holiday when I was called about it and I was asked to help out.

I have obviously done a fair bit up here over the years. I was always welcomed here. I have been around the place, not all the time like a bad smell, but I know the place a little bit. When I was asked to come over, I was familiar enough to know that I was able to help out a little bit.

Q: What attracted you to the position? You weren't short on offers after leaving Ireland.

LK: I have seen what it means to people up here, there is something about the Kingspan and the supporters and all the stakeholders involved with this club. There is an unbelievably unique passion for the team here and what it represents, so I am excited about immersing myself in that.

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From an organisational point of view, talking with Shane (Logan) in particular, it's the ambition the organisation does have about going forward. I think there is evidence of that given what has been achieved over the last five years with the stadium, the types of squads that have been put together, the rugby programmes. There is an ambition here that was exciting to me.

There are ambitious people here not only saying it but doing something about it.

Q: The squad has come up short at the business end of recent seasons, what needs to change?

LK: I wish I knew. Sometimes it is a little bit of luck and sometimes it is those other things. By their own admission when you talk to the players, in particular some of the senior players and the coaches, there were certainly things that were in their control that they could have done better.

First and foremost, I want to be able to put ourselves in a position that we have the opportunity to compete for trophies but I don't think I would have a clear answer to say what we would need now.

Q: Looking more at what's already occurred this season, what needs to improve?

LK: It is interesting that when you know you have the role eventually and you are looking from the outside, you do look at it a bit differently.

What I tried to do was not look at it in a judgemental way, I have just tried to observe and see what habits and trends were being exhibited on the pitch. I would probably say that we feel a little bit frustrated within ourselves as a team.

We had a lot of games where we created opportunities but were not as clinical as we would have liked to be. I think if you went to any rugby team they would probably say the same sort of thing.

Q: What represents a good season for Ulster?

LK: It might sound strange but I have not actually set a goal. Obviously it has been coach speak in more recent times but we focus on a match by match basis and, if you even take that a bit further, focus on each meeting and each session.

I want to commit to making sure I get to know this place very well over the next week or two. I want to commit to getting to know the players a little bit better and look through their games.

Hopefully we'll be able to maintain a momentum, or create a momentum we can maintain, in both competitions and deliver the results we need now because it can sneak away from you if you are not putting the W's together.

It is a delicate sort of process managing that because coming in at this stage, it is not so much difficult for the players, but it is different.

Q: You're coming in to head a coaching ticket already in place, how is your relationship with Neil Doak?

LK: When I took over the Irish national team for those brief two games in the summer series (in 2013) there was an opportunity to bring another coach in.

Doakie hadn't been involved. I rang and asked if he was interested because I think he has some really good coaching credentials. He's a good coach. It was a big ask but Doakie has worked away on his own and I think he's done a good job.

Part of my brief is to mentor and help indigenous coaches to develop and understand how they can go forward and build a good career out of coaching. It's not an easy game and there are a lot of things for Doakie to learn for sure but I'm still learning too; it never stops. I'm looking forward to the relationship.

Q: Three of Ulster's non-Irish qualified players (Louis Ludik, Franco van der Merwe and Nick Williams) are out of contract at the end of the season. How much of an input will you have on recruitment?

LK: One of the reasons we got Bryn (Cunningham) involved was to tap into his expertise. Particularly when I wasn't here.

He's come in and managed that as I've been in and out, but now I'm in the process of getting more on the ground, it'll be a collaborative process.

We'll work closely in terms of making sure we're looking for the right people and the right positions but ultimately the final decision does come down to me. It's obvious that the right balance is important and the right people are important.

It's a robust process to make sure that's done in the right way so that the people who do come in to us leave something behind.

In fairness to Ulster, they've had a pretty good track record in that regard. Johann Muller is a prime example. He certainly left his mark.

Q: What's your initial impression of what's needed for the squad?

LK: It's been a little bit difficult being right on board with it. My commitment was purely with the Irish team, but obviously in odd moments in the off season I had a few chats with the guys.

My hands have been on it but not in it, if you know what I mean. We're working now, having meetings with Bryn about what's been moving in terms of the market but also before that we just want to make sure what we have internally and coming through the system.

For the players, from my perspective, it's a great opportunity to show me what they're about.

We won't be making any rash decisions in the near future but obviously we have our eye on the ball.

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