Kidney tackling his own Everest
As Ireland's understated coach enters the defining period of his career, he talks to Hugh Farrelly about the difficult balancing act required to ensure his team reach their peak at next year's World Cup
Published 02/11/2010 | 05:00
DECLAN KIDNEY, very reluctantly, tells a story of being approached by a woman asking him to sign an autograph for her son. Embarrassed, but ever courteous, Kidney signed his name, exchanged a few words and was walking away when he heard the youngster chime: "Mammy, who's he?"
Being loath to relate a story as imbued with self-deprecation as that one emphasises the extent to which a person is defined by that very quality. The Ireland coach has always been uncomfortable with exposure, to the point where he has been accused of putting on an act.
It is no act.
THROUGHOUT his trophy-laden coaching career, Kidney has been consistently content to let the accolades and acclaim rain down on others. It may not produce sexy headlines or outposts of outrage for opponents, but being careful with your words is not a bad thing when it comes to the psychological warfare of sport.
In 2009, on the Tuesday before his side's showdown with Ireland, Wales coach Warren Gatland tried to goad a response with insinuations about Ireland's style of play and his assertion that the Irish and Welsh did not get on.
When he made those statements, Gatland provided just the type of pre-match trash talk the media, with oodles of air-time and newspaper pages to fill, craved. Kidney was in the job a matter of months and those not accustomed to his ways waited for his indignant response.
Not a peep. Then, on the eve of battle, in a fiery performance in Cardiff, Gatland backed up his claims and took a pop at Kidney who he described as speaking in "clichés and nothing".
When the (one-sided) phoney war ended, Ireland claimed the Grand Slam and the players spoke of how they were motivated by the desire to defend their slighted leader.
Since Kidney took over from Eddie O'Sullivan in 2008, one of the major regime changes has been the attitude towards the media. In post and pre-match gatherings, he constantly refers to the importance of conveying a positive message, realising that -- as happened with O'Sullivan -- antipathy towards the fourth estate can negatively affect wider opinion.
On the difficult summer tour, Kidney went out of his way to accommodate the small party of travelling Irish media. He tends to oversee happy camps and, despite four losses (including the Barbarians match) the decimated squad kept its morale intact and emerged with more positives than negatives. With easy accessibility, that message was conveyed successfully.
The upshot is that, when you sit down to interview Kidney, you are aware that quotes will be more choreographed than combustible, so you siphon off what you can (see panel) but accept the premise and acknowledge the motivation as utterly genuine.
FIRST things first, does he enjoy the responsibility and exposure that goes with the job?
"It is a huge honour, there is nothing higher than coaching your country and it's nice if you can give people something to shout about," he says.
"I miss the 30-odd matches a year of club rugby and it has been an adjustment. There's a load of things I want to do but when you come into international rugby you have to realise the players have already been coached well and you have to link in with that.
"You can fall into a trap -- which maybe we did in the November Internationals two years ago -- which is trying to get across too much information.
"Heading into November, we haven't had them properly for three months and you have three months of ideas, but you try to streamline it, pick out the important points and then let them off and play. You have to trust the players and the knowledge they bring."
IN the mid-1990s, the showers and dressing-rooms in Cork's Musgrave Park were, to put it kindly, a disgrace. Dark and dingy with scum on the floor, the half-a-dozen disconsolate nozzles either emitted a bitter drool of ice-cold ire or nothing at all. Kidney arrived as head coach of his former club Dolphin in 1995 and immediately started changing things.
Within a matter of weeks, the showers were modernised, treatment rooms properly equipped and the walls of the dressing-room painted in the club colours. Small changes add up to big consequences and within two seasons, Kidney had brought a distinctly average team from the basement of Division 2 to the AIL's top flight -- their only two defeats came when Kidney was in Argentina coaching the Ireland U-19s. Of course, his strategies extended to on-field matters also, namely the transformation from a side that had traditionally relied on mauling and penalty kicks into a fast-rucking team that could score tries.
With Kidney, there is always a plan. We are less than a year away from the World Cup but the planning started a considerable time ago and the most visible aspect of Kidney's long-term strategy is the much-debated player welfare system.
"It's tough," he acknowledges. "A huge balancing act. There's great work done in the provinces, I've always said that, and I believe we're 90pc of the way to what we want.
"There's always going to be small bits (of contention), does a fella play a game more or a game less? The bottom line is that they will play the same amount this year as they did last year and the year before. The difference is that with the two Italian teams in the Magners League and the play-off system, there are extra weekends this time.
"What applies to one guy won't apply to the next," he adds. "Playing tight-head prop is a lot different to playing right-wing, then you factor in a player's age and so on. It's going to have to be an ongoing thing.
"But it needs to be done. The economy has shown us the dangers of short-term thinking and over-extending yourself. With rugby players, if you overplay them now, you'd have no players down the line and they probably wouldn't last as long as they have. But if they don't play enough, you don't have any success.
"We have small playing resources in Ireland and there is no easy answer. I get frustrated as anybody but once we keep working at it, you never know what we can achieve."
IF there is one player who most closely resembles Kidney in achievement and attitude it is the revered -- and reserved -- Munster tight-head, John Hayes. The Cappamore man played his first senior game for the province against a Moroccan XV in the autumn of 1998, just after Kidney was lured from his club duties to the Munster job as a stop-gap after a spate of overseas coaching withdrawals.
Hayes was there for those Heineken Cups and Grand Slam and, though Kidney's playing experience was confined to out-half (a decent drop-goal exponent) and, occasionally, centre roles, he has always been appreciative of the importance of a go-to guy at tight-head.
However, Hayes turns 37 today, and asking him to contribute to a World Cup campaign when nearly 38 is a big ask. Ireland are likely to take four props to the World Cup and, as it stands, Hayes is in there alongside Tony Buckley, Cian Healy and Tom Court.
But, after years of Hayes being the 'fingers-crossed' selection, Buckley is now first choice and, suddenly, there are other quality options in Mike Ross and Jamie Hagan. Neither Ross nor Hagan made the final 30 for Saturday's clash with South Africa but was the time to make the break with Hayes?
"Jamie has gone well, in fairness to him, and Mike too," says Kidney. "John's age wouldn't worry me, as long as he's playing well. Who's to say 38 is too old or 21 is too young? We'll judge John, and all the props, on how they're playing with their province, the type of games they are playing in -- a host of things you have to weigh up. For that position, being the cornerstone of the scrum is a huge part of it but there's other things to look at too.
"The statistics show that there's approximately 14 scrums, 21 line-outs and 110 rucks in a game, so you're looking to see who can bring the most to the party.
"You don't know how fellas will go until you put them in but when you know someone can do a good job for you, you recognise that too. Why throw that away?"
FOR those of us long since convinced of the coaching qualities of Kidney, the fact that Ireland trawled the globe before eventually offering him the national post remains truly bizarre.
To dip into contemporary parlance, some coaches have the X-factor -- Gatland, Jake White and Kidney are among them.
Ireland head into November on a losing streak and cloaked in uncertainty. If there's a word to properly convey the reaction to the breathtaking fare on offer in Australia's win over New Zealand last Saturday it is "Yikes!"
Can Ireland, under Kidney (or anybody else) compete with that level of football?
One thing is certain, the coach has a history of pioneering achievement, and beating the All Blacks and reaching the last four of a World Cup are Everests he has planned for.
"Can we beat New Zealand? I believe so. It's going to happen one day. As regards the World Cup, I look at it like the Heineken (Cup) -- focus on getting out of your pool and take it from there. We are a small country and cannot take anything for granted; all we can do is give it our best and see what happens."
You wouldn't back against Kidney's Ireland scaling both those peaks. He is heading into the most challenging period of his coaching career and never has there been so much at stake.
Not least Kidney's anonymity.