Les Kiss can see signs that ‘good mate’ Ewen McKenzie has Australia building nicely

Ireland defence coach worked with Aussie supremo for five years at the Waratahs

Les Kiss: “We definitely need to be aware that they’re a sleeping animal.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho.

Les Kiss: “We definitely need to be aware that they’re a sleeping animal.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho.


Les Kiss is invariably wheeled out for his typically considered thoughts in the week of a Test against his native Australians, but this week his insights are particularly relevant. Kiss worked with the current Wallabies’ head coach Ewen McKenzie for five fruitful years at the New South Wales Waratahs before being recruited by the IRFU in 2009.

During that spell, 2004 to ’08, the Waratahs reached their first ever Super Rugby final in 2005 and repeated the feat in 2008 – both times having the misfortune to run into the Crusaders in Canterbury, if only losing the second decider by 20-12 – as well as the semi-finals in 2006 when losing away to Wellington. “We would chat once or twice a year maybe,” said Kiss. “It’s not like we’d have Christmas together or anything like that but we’re good mates.”

Mindful of the often critical media glare in which the Wallabies operate, Kiss said McKenzie would be particularly adept in keeping that at arm’s length. “I know one thing that will be true of Ewen, if there is a lot of noise around the place, outside the camp, and one of the things they’ll make sure of is that they manage that internally and control it. And it’s the same for us. There is opinion on the outside and that’s important, that’s what the game is about as well, but it’s managing it internally.

“I can see the little clues and signs there that things are building nicely, they’re getting a few little things gluing together, building combinations. Like getting a (Tevita) Kuridrani at number ‘13’ that they can settle on, and they know that Adam Ashley-Cooper can move there at any time. (Matt) Toomua, another ‘12’ option with Lealiifano, and Toomua can move to ‘10’ at any time.

“Cooper being given the vice captaincy is a shrewd move so that he understands his responsibilities within the team. To put Genia on the bench tactically but also as a clear message, he’s doing things, shaking the tree, and whatever falls out will give him some clues about where to go.

‘Going along fine’
“I think he’s going along fine. The results don’t always point to that but I think they’re in a better place than people give them credit for. It’s been five, six years since I’ve coached with Ewen so he’s probably really moved on in his coaching, has evolved a lot, but I can still see some good strong qualities coming through in his work.”

In temporarily demoting Genia, restoring Cooper and making him vice-captain, replacing James Horwill as captain with Ben Mowen and more, Kiss ventured: “If it was me I probably wouldn’t have done some of them, but that doesn’t mean it’s not right. The important thing is that he’s got the people around him that he wants around him.

“I know they’re not showing a win record that any coach would prefer to have, but I think they’re building to something nicely, where we definitely need to be aware that they’re a sleeping animal, that are waking up slowly but surely, so we’ve got to be careful.”

Kiss has virtually come full circle from his initial stint as defence coach, to attack coach, interim head coach and now back to defence coach. While the Wallabies have scored 18 tries in their last four games, all away, they’ve also conceded 11 in that time. “From what I see, and I believe Nick Scrivener’s doing the defence, I think there’s things coming through strongly in their work. I’d say it’s like the rest of their game, they’d be happy with the way that they’re going.

‘To break down’
“It’s going to be a hard team to break down. I think Australia have scored 18 tries in the last four Tests, something like that. They’ve leaked a few (11 to be precise), definitely, but if you look at it, they’ve played South Africa and New Zealand, who do score tries and they can hurt you. They’re the hardest teams to learn and adapt certain things to your defensive structure but I think they’re going in the right direction.

“I’ve looked at it closely and we’ve had the luxury to look right through the Rugby Championship and a Lions series and seeing where it’s moving. I do think, and I mean it, their defence is going in the right direction and a strong place.

Asked if he was a Wallabies’ fan, Kiss smiled and said “second after Ireland. If the Wallabies are playing anyone else it’s definitely the team I go for, for sure. You always have an active interest in the Super XV teams that are playing, the Waratahs, the Melbourne Rebels coming up and the Reds, which are in my home state, Queensland. You’re always interested and you keep an eye on it.

“I’ve still got a lot of good mates in the teams and around the edges there so I like to see them go well, not too well that they’re a handful right down the track if we have to meet them in a big tournament somewhere. But that’s for a later time and I’ll focus on this game. But I think they’re improving and I am a fan of them but only after the green jersey here.”