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Aussie abroad: Les Kiss

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19th February, 2020
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It is not just good Aussie brawn making an impression on foreign rugby fields these days. There are plenty of good brains in the coaching box, too.

Among the Australian coaches now clutching clipboards abroad are Stephen Larkham (Munster), Toutai Kefu (Tonga), Nick Stiles (Kintetsu), Julian Salvi (Exeter), and Chris Latham (Utah).

Not to mention Les Kiss, who is arguably the most accomplished of the lot. The former Waratahs assistant is currently the head coach of London Irish, who compete in England’s top-tier Premiership.

Queenslander Kiss first made a name for himself in the 1980s playing rugby league for the Maroons and Australia Kangaroos. He remained in 13s as a coach for several years after his playing days before code-switching in 2001 when headhunted by the Springboks.

That appointment kick-started what has been an outstanding two decades of rugby coaching for Kiss. His long journey has taken him from the Rainbow Nation back to Sydney, twice briefly to Japan, then the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and now the English capital.

Kiss comes across as a player’s coach. Of course, he has a deep understanding of rugby’s Xs and Os, but puts building relationships and getting the best out of people above anything else.

“It isn’t all about the methodology and theory of the game,” he says. “The most important thing (about being a coach) is understanding yourself – who you are, how you relate to the people around you, and understanding the locker room. The heartbeat of any rugby organisation is the locker room. If you get that right and can actually relate to people you have a chance to build something nice.

“I’m a believer that players ultimately decide how things are going to work out. Too many coaches try to intellectualise the game. They pontificate about how much knowledge they have, but if you can’t transfer that to the player group then you have nothing.”

Les Kiss

(Photo by Nigel French/PA Images via Getty Images)

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Kiss’ message seems to be getting through at Irish. They are a rapidly rising team having gained promotion from the Championship last season – Kiss’ first at the club. They have continued in the same vein this season accruing a respectable 22 points after ten rounds.

The Exiles are only four points adrift of fourth-placed Bristol meaning a spot in the semis is definitely within reach with 12 rounds remaining. Finishing anywhere in the top six would be a laudable achievement given they are just one year removed from England’s second tier.

Kiss is not the only Aussie helping Irish’s cause. The club has been a magnet for Australian players over the past few years. Eight Australian players are currently on their roster, including five Wallabies.

Adam Coleman, Sekope Kepu, Curtis Rona and Nick Phipps all joined this season bringing their 200-plus international caps worth of experience with them.

Kiss chuckles at the suggestion that signing a raft of his countrymen was done on purpose. He puts their acquisitions down to availability and them having the right mindset.

“It wasn’t by design,” he says. “It was something that was timely. There was a lot of good quality players who were on the market at the time we were looking that were Aussies.

“When Declan (Kidney) and I sat down with those guys personally face to face something seemed to click about where we needed to take the team. They knew what it took to play at the highest level.

“That doesn’t say that London Irish (players) didn’t have standards, it’s just about how you shift the psyche to what it takes to win and be at the highest level of your performance. These types of players (the Wallabies) have been integral to that.”

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The aforementioned Kidney is the club’s director of rugby. This is not the first time that he and Kiss have hooked up and had success with a team.

The Kidney-Kiss combination was first forged back in 2008 after the former was appointed head coach of the Ireland national team. Over a cup of coffee in Melbourne, he offered the then-Waratahs employee an opportunity to re-enter the international arena. Kiss accepted his overture and soon uprooted his family to the land of shamrocks and leprechauns.

Around six months after that fateful cuppa, Ireland rugby experienced an ecstasy they not felt in over six decades. Kidney – and his right-hand man, Kiss – led the Emerald Islanders to their first Grand Slam triumph since 1948.

Kiss recalls the rapturous moment when Ireland sealed the 2009 tournament with victory against Wales. Being a part of rugby history, in addition to the complexities of his personal circumstances, gave the moment extra gravity.

“That experience was not just about when the final whistle went,” he says. “It was the journey to get here. My daughter was 15 and my son was 11 when we moved to Ireland. They had said to me, ‘What the hell was I doing bringing them over the other side of the world for?!’ My wife also sacrificed a lot. It was the complete package.

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“It’s the biggest trophy that I’ve won, and it was so many years since they’d won a Grand Slam. I really enjoyed life as a Grand Slam-winning coach. For the next week or so I didn’t have to buy a drink!”

Kiss ended up outstaying Kidney at Ireland. He remained on the coaching staff for the first few years of Joe Schmidt’s head coaching reign. All up, in Kiss’ seven years on the Ireland staff, the men in green won three Six Nations titles.

Ireland's fly half Jonny Sexton kicks a penalty

(AFP PHOTO / IAN MACNICOL)

Kiss’ next stop was Ulster. He held director of rugby duties with the Belfast-based team for three seasons where his side won a respectable 62 per cent of their Pro14 games. He resigned from his post after the 2017-18 season.

That brings us back to the present with Kiss and Kidney re-united at London Irish. The 55-year-old is halfway through his three-year contract, which will keep him at the club until the end of the 2020-21 season.

Then what? Is there potential for Kiss to return home and apply his extensive knowledge to the Wallabies cause?

We’ll have to wait and see. Kiss’ 12-year absence from the Aussie scene is not due to him being forgotten. He has been sounded out on a few occasions by Australian interests but commitments elsewhere have blocked any chance of a return.

“No one has neglected me at all,” he says. “Each time an opportunity came up I was in the middle of a commitment. It just wasn’t the right time.

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“If I was ever asked in a more serious way at the right time then I’d definitely consider it.”

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With the new Wallabies coaching regime set in place for several more years it appears that any return would be a way off.

I, for one, hope that it eventually happens. Showering his pearls of wisdom once again over Aussie men (based in Australia!) would be a major coup for rugby in this country. There will be a few more grey hairs in his goatee by then, but with them he would bring a boatload of experience.

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As for now, though, Kiss has got a job to do at Irish. And he’s loving it.

“At the moment we have 13 different nationalities in our team,” he explains.

“This is an unbelievable experience to have such a broad spectrum of where people came from and how they see the game. Trying to knit that together into some coherent thing that we all believe in is beautiful. It’s a fascinating project.”

Under the guidance of one Australia’s sharpest rugby minds, you can only see that project succeeding.

Keep it up, Les!

Les Kiss’ coaching CV
• 2018-present London Irish (head coach)
• 2015-18 Ulster (director of rugby)
• 2013 Ireland (interim head coach)
• 2009-15 Ireland (assistant coach)
• 2006 Waratahs development tour of UK/Ireland (head coach)
• 2003-08 Waratahs (assistant coach)
• 2003, 2008 IBM (coach)
• 2003-07 Australia A (assistant coach)
• 2003 Australia U21 (assistant coach)
• 2002 Bulls, Stormers, Cats (coach)
• 2001 South Africa Proteas (assistant coach)
• 2000 Northern Eagles (assistant coach)
• 1999 London Broncos (assistant coach)
• 1994-1998 North Sydney Bears (various coaching roles)

Any requests for Aussies abroad? Hit me up in the comments section!