Kiss' Boks history gives Ulster an edge
INTERVIEW: Former Springboks defence coach Les Kiss' inside knowledge of South Africa give Ulster a rare indication of what to expect for the Pro14 opener against the Cheetahs.
Belfast will be the location for a historic moment on Friday as the Cheetahs become the first South African team to play in the PRO14.
It is a step into the unknown for all involved but for opponents Ulster, they have a man who has more insight than most as to what to expect from the South African side.
Les Kiss is now entering his third full season in charge at Ulster, but delve back a little further into the Australian’s coaching background and a spell coaching the Springboks back in 2001-2 played a key part in his development.
And now he is hoping to use that inside knowledge of South African rugby to ensure his Ulster side are ready for what will come at them at the Kingspan Stadium on Friday.
Kiss, who was speaking at the official launch of the PRO14 in Dublin, recalled: “I coached with the Springboks for a season, 11 Test matches and coached in South Africa for about 12-18 months.
“That was around 2001 before I joined the Waratahs. It’s where I forged my relationships with Heyneke Meyer and Gert Smal and the like, and Rassie Erasmus. I coached him when he was still playing.
“It’s an interesting country, they are a rugby-rich nation. They are talented and a crazily physical nation.
“The two areas we are talking about with Eastern Province and the Bloemfontein area, they are rich with tradition so they are going to be well-resourced and tough.
“The Cheetahs is going to be a tough, tough match. What they can bring to the set-piece, they are explosive athletes and they are going to be pumped. This is their lifeline so they’ve got a new lease of life.
“I approach the game with trepidation but also excitement and hopefully we’re good enough to do a job.
“I spoke to the Cheetahs coach Rory Duncan, and they are excited about it. It’s a new challenge for them, and for us. There are going to be variables, we’re not sure what to prepare for.
“We’ll do our best, do our planning but it will throw up some exciting times. The uncertainty is something you have to deal with.
“The teams who can deal with that the best are probably the ones who will get over some difficult moments.”
It’s been a summer of change for Ulster. Having missed out on last year’s play-offs it will be a new-look coaching team working under Kiss with Jono Gibbes, Dwayne Peel, Aaron Dundon and Niall Malone having all arrived over the off-season.
They bring a range of different experiences with them; Gibbes, as well as coaching at Leinster, was part of the Clermont coaching staff that claimed the club’s second-ever Top 14 title in June.
Peel has been honing his craft in England with Bristol, while former Leinster hooker Dundon has more recent experience of the league having only retired in 2016.
That has obviously required some time to adapt, but after flying out of the blocks last season only to miss the play-offs, Kiss is less concerned about making a fast start and more focused on getting the new game plan in place.
He added: “Pre-season is always a mystery, we’ve got a new coaching team put together that’s gelled really nicely. They came here in the last few days in June.
“We’ve got some specific new patterns that we’re putting into place and how we play in attack and defence so we’re piecing that together. It won’t take us a long time, but it will take a bit of time to get that ready. Getting different perspectives on how we want to move the programme on has been good.
“I’m still very much a hands-on director of rugby. I have Bryn Cunningham here who looks after a lot of the stuff that needs doing in terms of recruiting players and retaining players. It’s just a different coaching team but my role is similar.
“It’s all been hunky dory so far but there have been no points up for grabs. Everyone is a contender and everyone feels their pre-season is going to deliver something for them. It doesn’t always have to be neat and tidy and a good start doesn’t guarantee you something. The Scarlets lost their first three last season but they trusted in their systems, trusted in what they were doing and built slowly. Exeter won two of their first five, they didn’t have a good start so it doesn’t define your season.
“Last season we won five in a row and that didn’t see us through in the end so ultimately it’s making sure that you’re seeing progression in what you’re trying to develop so we’re just looking to see more progression.”