Monday 25 March 2019

Sinead Kissane: From inside Ireland to the Exiles – Les Kiss' latest challenge

London Irish coach Les Kiss aims to rebuild the Exiles. Photo: Getty
London Irish coach Les Kiss aims to rebuild the Exiles. Photo: Getty
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

There was a simplicity to how Les Kiss finished the first presentation he gave the Ireland players in his new job as Ireland defence coach 10-and-a-half years ago.

Earlier that summer, in June 2008, Declan Kidney went to meet Kiss during the Ireland tour of New Zealand and Australia to see if he would be interested in joining his new Ireland coaching team.

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Standing in front of players he didn't know, Kiss finished his presentation with three simple words: 'S**t Will Happen'.

"The thing that will define us is how we find a way to deal with it when the s**t happens," Kiss told them.

Of course, 'when the s**t happens' and how you deal with it isn't confined to players. Three days before the first game of Ireland's Grand Slam-winning season last year came confirmation that Kiss had lost his job.

The statement from Ulster Rugby on January 31 that Kiss was "leaving his post as director of rugby by mutual consent, effective immediately" came at such an unprecedented low point off and on the field for the province that the statement had the air of putting everyone out of their misery.

"Look, that's rugby," Kiss said this week.

"I've got no grudges or anything. I always believe that you leave a place (and) keep respecting it.

"It happens everywhere, coaches are always on the edge of some decision that's not going to be to their favour".

And then, not for the first time, Kidney turned up with a surprise offer for Kiss. Around a week after finishing with Ulster, and believing he was going to have to go home to Australia to find another job, Kidney contacted Kiss about the possibility of joining him at London Irish.

Kiss had kept in touch with Kidney over the years - his wife's sister is married to a Corkman so when they were in Cork Kiss used to touch base with Kidney.

"Yeah, look a bit of a surprise when it all happened to be honest. We never lost contact with each other which was good. When this came about, and the owner and Declan spoke to me about this, it seemed to make sense rather than the other options that I had," Kiss admits.

"My daughter lives in London, which was why it was attractive to my wife, my son had his off year in Trinity in Dublin. It was a different challenge to move back into the Championship.

"I've found it brilliant working with Deccie and a different group of players seeing the game differently."

When Kidney (director of rugby) and Kiss (head coach) officially joined London Irish in March last year the club were 12 points adrift at the bottom of the Premiership with five games left.

'Irish' were relegated and they're now nine points clear at the top of the Championship after 14 games. The priority is getting back to the Premiership and staying there. Confirmation that Seán O'Brien will leave Leinster to join them next December was a statement of intent.

"Without doubt, it's a nice vote of confidence. Talking to Seánie you can see that he's still hungry. He's had a period of injury, in and out a little bit. We still think he's got some good years left in him.

"I know that Leo and Stuart also thought he'd some good years left in him. He (O'Brien) understands the mission and the challenge. He understands that Declan and I have got to get us up first (to the Premiership).

"I think it's important we want to make a place that people from Ireland would want to join but we aren't actively pursuing them.

"If someone's interested and they want to genuinely talk to us - and we're not a bartering tool for figures - we're happy to talk," he says before elaborating on the O'Brien move.

"We did it through the right channels - Declan spoke to the IRFU about it and Leo and Stuart about it and it came about the right way.

"But it's great getting him on board, he'll bring a lot of leadership, a lot of penetration in our attack and a lot of real good nous in strengthening our defence."

There's also speculation that Paddy Jackson will join London Irish from Perpignan at the end of the season.

"Our statement on that is that we don't make comment on that until it's confirmed."

Even though Kiss warned Ireland players that 'S**t Will Happen' before his first season as defence coach, it turned into one of the most memorable seasons in Irish rugby.

Next month is the 10-year anniversary of Ireland's Grand Slam-winning match against Wales. When Paddy Wallace conceded that penalty at the end, the coaches stood up in despair thinking the Slam was gone before Kidney told them to sit back down and wait to see if Stephen Jones' kick would go over.

"I think back to that moment and we all sort of stood up and he said: 'sit down, let's keep the head'. And there was a sense that when I looked at the boys facing up to that kick, it was like they willed that ball away from those polls. As the kick came over it was like a force-field pushing that ball away."

Kiss would out-last Kidney in the Ireland set-up. When Kidney and the IRFU parted ways after the 2013 Six Nations, Kiss led Ireland on the summer tour of the US and Canada before Joe Schmidt took over.

Kiss was defence coach for the back-to-back Six Nations-winning championships of 2014 and '15.

So, Kidney and Schmidt, different characters and coaches?

"Yeah, for sure but both driven, both have a drive about what they want out of it," Kiss says. "We would say that we encourage differences in our coaching group here. Joe would encourage a different set of opinion and go from there but when it's their call you go with it.

"Both of them have massive strengths and hopefully my strengths have always been able to come through with those guys."

Ten years on from that Grand Slam, Kiss' views on rugby have changed, including the use of the choke tackle.

"I've always had a growth mindset. What I think I knew 10 years ago I would probably think differently on a couple of areas now," Kiss offers.

"I think it (the choke tackle) was used as a direct strategic tool back then and now you've just got to be a bit smarter about how it comes into the game. If you're doing the same thing from 10 years ago, you're probably off track. You have to move and evolve.

"I'm proud of what I've done in Irish rugby, I do miss it, I will always miss it, my kids and my family have a great affection to Ireland," Kiss says.

"I could easily see myself settling down there at the end of the days. Maybe I'll be sitting down in a pub when I'm in my 70s thinking back about my journey, hopefully with a Guinness in hand, in front of the fireplace. I'm looking forward to that day."

Kiss has skated the spectrum from inside Ireland, to Ulster, to the Exiles. The simple knowledge that s**t will happen and finding a way to deal with it is the best kind of defence in any walk of life.

Irish Independent

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