Les Kiss interview: Total immersion makes coach part of the furniture in adopted land

Australian is consumed by game and says no team challenges defensive skills more than French

Ireland assistant coach Les Kiss has been in here for seven years and will extend his stay when he becomes director of rugby at Ulster after the World Cup in November. photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Ireland assistant coach Les Kiss has been in here for seven years and will extend his stay when he becomes director of rugby at Ulster after the World Cup in November. photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

To put it in Australian parlance: “Seven years? Bloody hell’. It’s incredible to think that this is Les Kiss’ seventh season on the Irish coaching ticket. A deep-thinking, erudite man who is consumed by the game, his influence has been profound and he has almost become one of us without us even noticing. As it transpires, the feelings work both ways.

“You must like the place?”

He laughs. “In actual fact, you’re right. ‘Love’ would be the word. And I don’t mean it lightly. On a number of fronts, it’s a place that is a surprise upon a surprise every year. You gain more from your experiences every year, and I mean that honestly.”

Kiss, his wife Julie and their children Sophie and Lachlan have lived all this time in Booterstown (although Sophie is now in her third year studying psychology at Briston University), and will extend their stay in Ireland beyond the World Cup when Kiss takes up the reins as director of rugby at Ulster on November 1st, the day after the World Cup final (and hopefully with a hangover) until 2019.

Kiss retains an un-Aussie like fondness for northern hemisphere rugby. “It can be open and ambitious, and it can be tight and quite confrontational. I’m not saying that doesn’t exist in the southern hemisphere but there is this massive push to have it as an all-encompassing game to shift the ball wide a lot, whereas here you have the variables, which I do enjoy immensely – and we do love Dublin and all of what life here has to offer.”

There’s no sign of them heading away any time soon, and while his departure to Ulster after the World Cup is off limits in this interview, in all other respects he is as thoughtful and engaging as ever. Another huge part of the attraction of living here is that Dublin is a gateway to Europe, and they have availed of this to such an extent that last year’s visit to Australia was the first in five years.

Recruited by Declan Kidney in 2008, Kiss and Ireland hit the ground running too, winning a first Grand Slam in 61 years and compiling the first unbeaten calendar Test year (2009) in the professional era with a record of nine wins and a draw in 10 matches, as part of an initial 12-game unbeaten run.

“That ‘after glow’ followed for a little period but there certainly became tougher periods. It was disappointing not to win one for another few years but winning another one last year was very satisfying, that’s for sure,” says Kiss.

Evolution of trends

“When you lose a few in a row, there’s definitely low points,” he admits, and the end of the Kidney reign was particularly tough. “It would be remiss to say it wasn’t. I think it was tough on a number of fronts. That it had to end that way was not a nice way, to tell you the truth. Declan is a fantastic person and I learned a lot off Declan. But that’s the nature of our game, and that’s why we’re in it, because you live on the edge all the time.

“But from that half-empty perspective, the half-full side was that it had to expose some players who have come through. Ultimately, the capacity to rebound and get back on top of it is something I do enjoy. I’ve never felt like I was totally defeated. The players are relentlessly inspiring in that they never think it’s all over.”

Kiss questions whether coaches should have a finite time with any given team, citing Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Wayne Bennett’s “20-odd years with the Broncos”, Craig Bellamy with the Melbourne Storm, and maintains a coach is always learning, that fundamental convictions have to be flexible, even one’s language has to adapt, as does the analysis of opposition teams. Then there was the arrival of Joe Schmidt, as well as the emergence of new players, to whom he has to relate or otherwise he’s goosed.

Challenge myself

He has been an innovate defence coach along the way, the use of ‘shooters’ being a key plank of the ’09 Slam, as was the ‘choke tackle’ for last year’s title. Yet he points out that the latter, much aped around the world, constitutes just 6 per cent of their tackle count. “We use it as a variable. It’s not our ‘go to’. If I stay locked in that, I’ve lost.”

Coaching is not a real job, he concedes, and certainly isn’t what can be called a nine-to-fiver. “It is weird to the Nth degree. I read somewhere ‘love what you’re doing until you’re doing what you love’, because otherwise you waste eight hours of your day. I guess I’m already doing what I love, so it’s easy for me to say that, and it is 24-hours-a-day. What that means is any time I can switch on the computer and go to rugby.”

He is almost reluctant to reveal how many matches he might watch in a given week, especially a European Cup week, and that’s on top of the regular diet of football. Kiss is “a Chelsea fan for my sins”, he concedes with suitable shame, and once remarked to his wife how much fun it would be in retirement one day to watch sport all weekend long.

Consumed

Hence, like all coaches, he runs the risk of his job overtaking everything. “My family, in particular, is the most important thing, and you’ve still got to find those windows for relaxation.

“But if there’s a rugby game on, I’ll watch it because I’m always learning.

“So I’m in this surreal world, and it is wonderful. And I don’t take it for granted, and I don’t look down on other people’s positions. Whatever life deals you, you make the best of it you can, and that’s an important principle underlying anything.”

The French, interestingly, take up more of his time than most. “I still think one of the ultimate challenges is France; unbelievable threats across the park and an amazing challenge. When I go through all the games, it’s always the one I take the most clips out of and then try to say ‘okay, what matters here, and how do I put it into a message for the players that’s succinct and to the point?’ There is so much you have to go through. I just love that potential brilliance they have and hopefully we can shut it down.”

With his help they just might.

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