Discovering the blueprint for Super Rugby success: How Les Kiss has managed to get away from a one-dimensional style


It may just be that Queensland have identified a coaching blue print for Australian Rugby to follow.

After spending 15 years serving an apprenticeship and becoming a master overseas, Les Kiss has returned looking by far the most equipped of the Australian provincial coaches.

That perhaps should not be surprising when you consider his resume which includes a stint under none other than Joe Schmidt with Ireland, time with the Springboks as well as eight years at Ulster and London Irish.

But a look beyond Kiss at his assistants, is both a rarity and instructive. There’s classic Northern Hemisphere Rugby grounding combined with Queensland grass roots and a liberal sprinkling of League.

Kissy’s assistants are arguably each more well-rounded coaches already than say Stephen Larkham, Simon Cron and Darren Coleman.

Before I go on, let me be clear. The Reds are not yet world beaters, Kiss would be the first to admit that they are 4 games into a long season.

That said, there is a noticeable change of approach up north in every aspect. From improved fitness to breakdown accuracy to ball distribution.

As John Ferguson highlighted last week, what is most significant is how the Reds are playing, not their position on the table. There is a clarity and conviction translating to execution.

After the Chiefs game, Kiss was asked to identify the most significant change made since his arrival to which he responded, “my assistants, they’ve been great.”

Reds Coach Les Kiss. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

So where did Kissy’s assistants come from, what is their story?

Those in the know claim Red’s skills coach Jonathan Fisher is one of English Rugby’s brightest coaching talents. If not for a twist of fate leading him to join Kiss at London Irish before that club’s insolvency, it’s doubtful Fisher would have landed with the Reds.

Fisher was schooled at the English rugby institution, Wellington College. He played for the First XV as both a lock and back row for two seasons, joining alumni such as James Haskell. Leo Tolstoy and George Orwell went there too.

It was after his schooling though where arguably Fisher really received his rugby education. Playing stints across Irish, Bedford Blues, Northampton and Bristol exposed him to a multitude of high-performance environments.

Jim Mallinder for example was Director of Rugby during Fisher’s time at Northampton. Later Mallinder would take prominent roles with both English and Scottish Rugby where he became Director of Performance in 2019.

After playing alongside established and street smart internationals like Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes for multiple seasons, Fisher was forced to retire at just 28 due to a severe concussion. The twist of fate that ultimately led him to take up coaching with Kiss at London Irish.

For four seasons, Fisher played a prominent and very successful role with Irish’s academy, under none other than Director of Rugby Declan Kidney.

In February 2020, he told the Times that coaching the London Irish U18s had made him fall in love with Rugby again. Before one match he said: “As a coach, you are always trying to sell a vision and are trying to engage the group…We have a great sense of transparency between coaching and playing groups, but honestly, that’s necessary to improve chances of decision-making in tough moments.”

Transparency, clarity, call it what you will. Fisher’s players know what is required of them and why.

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

In contrast to Fisher, forwards coach Zane Hilton is less exotic, if you can call England that.

Hilton, if my memory serves me correctly, played hooker for Queensland Schoolboys in 1998 before beginning his rugby coaching career as manager of the Regional College for the Reds between 2002 and 2006. Stints in Italy and Japan followed before he became assistant to Toutai Kefu with Tonga.

When announcing Hilton’s appointment, Kiss said: “With his coaching experience, Zane has great knowledge of all levels of the game in Queensland including both club and Super Rugby. It’s great to see him return to his home state armed with the lessons he’s learnt over the years.”

In many ways, that’s an acknowledgment of just how important a grasp of local grass roots as well as professional rugby is. But it was also a nod to what is becoming increasingly obvious. Australian coaches are best served spending time overseas on extended apprenticeships in multiple environments.

When combined, Hilton and Fisher bring a diverse but complimentary skill set to Queensland. They make for a dynamic and relatively youthful duo already brimming with lessons learnt.

Working under people such as Mallinder, Kidney, Kefu and Kiss is invaluable. Coaching trees count.

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If Rugby Australia has any sense, they immediately would start sponsoring coaches to take up junior positions in England, Ireland or even New Zealand.

Pursuing reciprocal placements even for coaches like Mick Heenan would be wise.

Stephen Larkham had a hugely disappointing stint at Munster. When Larkham left, Gavin Cummiskey of the Irish Times commented that: “Stephen Larkham the player and Stephen Larkham the coach are two completely different entities, if Larkham was of the same coaching standard as Andy Friend we would have heard or seen it by now as an attack coach. We just simply haven’t. Now he’s off.”

Was handing Larkham the keys to one of Australian Rugby’s Crown Jewels after Munster wise? Was it really the blueprint for success?

Brad Davis of course rounds out the trio of assistants under Kiss. He infamously fell out with one Eddie Jones last year and was replaced by ‘Leaguies’. Oh the outrage.

Turbo with the turnover Nass with the finish#ANewEraForQueensland

— Queensland Reds (@Reds_Rugby) March 15, 2024

The interesting thing is that like Les Kiss, Davis played League for 15 years, making 215 appearances in the English Super League before becoming predominantly a Defence Coach first at Bath and then at Wasps as well as Ospreys.

When Davis was released for a ‘secondment’ by Irish to pursue his stint with the Wallabies he said: “It’s a hugely exciting opportunity and I’m looking forward to gaining some fantastic experience from Eddie Jones and the rest of the Australia coaches. Like at London Irish, I will be working with an extremely talented group of players.”

We all know it didn’t work out and the reasons are far from clear. But that didn’t stop Kiss from reuniting with Davis more or less immediately.

Interestingly, Jones chose Davis as his attack coach whereas most of Davis’ experience was in defence. Is it a coincidence that the Reds now have an 85% tackle success rate and 95% ruck success rate?

Regardless, things are looking up.

One Roarer posted last week: “Ask yourself a couple of questions. Are the Reds good to watch this year? Are they playing with heart and fight? Are they the type of team that people want to watch and get behind? I think the answer to all three questions is yes. I am not a Queenslander, but I am actively checking the fixtures each week to pencil in watching them. Can’t say I have done that in a long time.”

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Well, that was three questions, but I am a Queenslander, and I couldn’t have said it better myself.

As an Australian desperate to see the Wallabies do well, I hope other states are paying close attention to what Les Kiss and his assistants are doing and how it is they got here.

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