Wednesday 7 December 2016

Les Kiss: Argentina World Cup defeat won't define me

Ulster revival helping Les Kiss get World Cup exit out of his system

Published 10/01/2016 | 02:30

Ulster's Les Kiss
Ulster's Les Kiss

Cast your mind back to that bizarre February night in Paris in 2012 when you tuned in to watch France versus Ireland in the Six Nations, and instead were greeted by an episode of the Keystone Cops.

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Frozen pitch, a stalled system and everybody bar the brave PR person, Christine Connolly, running for cover. She was the poor unfortunate who had to tip toe across the frozen pitch to tell the crowd it was all off. Nice gig that. Back in the changing rooms meantime you had 46 players, plus back-up staff, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

For Les Kiss, leaving Stade de France that night, he didn't reckon on anything similar cropping up again in his coaching career, let alone in the same country. Then its first cousin arrived in Oyonnax two months ago.

"In a way we were all shattered because we were all sitting there - last team meeting done before we hopped on the bus," he says. "We'd prepped brilliantly, everyone was primed but I knew as I was presenting, this possibly won't be happening. Then we're on the bus, ready to go, and it was cancelled, an hour and half before kick-off. In the end it was like a vacuum. We couldn't satisfy our preparation. I look back on that and think I probably didn't manage it as well as I could have."

Not having any sort of hit-out left them especially unfulfilled. Then a week later Saracens, having had an altogether more useful experience at home against Toulouse while Ulster were being stalled in Oyonnax, came to Belfast and beat the home team out the gate.

On a typically horrible night at Kingspan - its microclimate must be the worst in Europe - Kiss's first European game as head coach of Ulster was over before half-time. All he had to look forward to in the second half was witnessing his players trying to inch forward into the gale-force wind. It was like watching a Western where a family of settlers are battling into a sandstorm.

"Bang-bang," he says of the hammer blows that came in the form of rapid-fire tries from Saracens. And with that Les Kiss had been introduced to life as head coach of a club whose dreams are always unfulfilled. "Yeah, it's massive," he says of the psychological climb in Ulster. "What I said in my initial presentations was: 'Let's not shy away from recognising that's what we aspire to.' I want us to be driven by that outcome but then understand: 'What are the key things that will get us there?' That's what I've focused on.

"To be there, we have to understand what it is to stand near the top of Europe and to be winning trophies. It's important that we recognise that's where we want to be so now we know what to focus on to get there.

"We're only at the initial stages but I think we've picked the right things at this stage and the weekend (against Munster) was a real lesson for us. Saracens wouldn't lose that game. I'm probably building up my opponents for next week a bit but they wouldn't. That's where we understand the gaps that we have to fill, and that's a psychological thing as much as technical/tactical thing for sure."

The whole business of coaching, and how he might make a career of it, settled into Kiss's head in the early '90s when he was playing for North Sydney Bears in Australia's NRL. Or rather when a banged-up knee meant he wasn't playing for them. He had been good enough to play State of Origin for Queensland and tour with the unbeaten Kangaroos in 1986. A man who played against Kiss in those days remembers him as follows:

"Les? A sprightly wing," he says. "I'd say any club would have been glad to have him on their squad. And a champion bloke."

He might even have been a premier quality salesman of poker machines as well, for when he was rehabbing from his knee injury in Sydney, Kiss turned his hand to other stuff around the club. Like marketing and sales, which, being Australia, would always involve dealing with 'pokies'.

"It was a competitive market," he recalls. "You're exploring at the end of your career where do you go? So you get to know how a franchise works. It was good preparation for this."

Not long after he accepted that his knee wasn't prepared to play ball he got into coaching in league at home, and then a stint with the London Broncos led to an offer from Springbok coach Harry Viljoen, and overnight Kiss became a union man.

"I lived in hotels wherever they were, and then toured with them," he recalls. "And then whenever they were in Australia I'd be with them, so I'd fly back and forwards. I was like a gypsy, in a way, for two years.

"I remember my first contract when I came back from South Africa was with New South Wales. I'd a meeting with Eddie Jones and Bob Dwyer - there wasn't anything going but they were kind enough to put me in a role with the Waratahs and that just grew within two or three months straight into a full-time role. It was kind of seat-of-the-pants stuff to start off. If nothing had come of it, I probably would have ended up back in league, I guess."

Although his background is league, and Wayne Bennett, one of its legendary coaches was an inspiration to him, it's the union game that informs his thinking. There is as much chance of Kiss going back to league as there is to civvy street, for his seven years on the job with Ireland saw him earn wide respect. In that period he covered 82 Tests where Ireland were the best in Tier 1 for concession of tries. As a sting in the tail however, the sign-off against Argentina was venomous.

Over the course of 2015 Ireland played 14 Tests: four shut-outs; six games with just one try conceded; three with either two or three conceded (all in the World Cup warm-ups, when team selections were varied), and then along came Enid Blyton. The Famous Five go to Cardiff is not on Kiss's bedside locker.

"I don't think that should define the players and the World Cup for them," he says. "If it defines me, that's fine, but I know what defines me and that's more important. Those things happen and it just happened at the wrong time. (Also) The New Zealand loss (in 2013) just wasn't characteristic of us, and sometimes those things happen. You try and bury it in a deep, dark corner but it does raise its head when people ask you questions like this!

"I guess you have to accept that those things will happen and sometimes the timing isn't ideal. The Grand Slam was rock-solid and it stayed solid and it got us the money - y'know the two Six Nations campaigns that we won, it held long enough to win those.

"Remember when we lost to Scotland when they kicked that goal at Croke Park (2010)? That was one of my worst losses. Then you have to live through the off-season until you get a match again. The boys are going through it now until that first Wales Test. It's hard to come off that and live that three months before you play your next game. For me, I knew my first game (with Ulster) was just around the corner, and it was cleansing to be able to get there. In a way, I moved pretty quickly, mentally, knowing I had a chance to get something out of the system, because a loss is the hardest thing to carry for a long time. Win the last game of a campaign and it makes life so much better."

Today in Oyonnax is a perfect example of the club life-cycle. With a defeat by Munster immediately in their rear view mirror, along comes the postponed European game to get Ulster back in gear. Circumstances have changed since the game was postponed in November. Kiss has settled into a good rhythm in Ravenhill, and they had a run of four wins on the trot before losing to Munster.

Moreover Oyonnax have had their season clarified for them: they are second from bottom in the Top 14 with one win from their last five games. Their selection for this afternoon reflects that state of affairs. Survival in the Top 14 is their goal.

So Ulster's target is five points if they want to stay alive in the race for the knockouts. The weather forecast for that region in France today is seven degrees and showery. Unlikely that the elements will get in the way then. And barring another atrocity, terrorism won't knock it on the head either. Which should leave Les Kiss free to get through a French weekend with his plans intact. There will be a queue of people wanting to salute that outcome.

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