Bankrupt of authority
Kidney’s fall from unorthodox genius to lame-duck complete as out-of-character gambles end chances of new contract
Published 26/02/2013 | 04:00
It takes a coach of pretty remarkable self-possession to access his motivational parables from the library of Walt Disney. But more than once in his first stint with Munster, Declan Kidney used 'The Lion King' DVD to articulate his philosophy in the build-up to important games.
For hard-nosed professionals, the idea that success might be located within the plot of an animated musical would not, ordinarily, be an easy sell.
But Kidney has always been a little left-field in his ways. When he led Ireland to the U-19 world title in 1998, it was – above all – a triumph of the mind. Members of that team recall his gift to them as an ability to communicate improbable ideas. To sell belief.
Innovation never scares the brightest leaders. When Wexford hurling manager Liam Griffin took his players off the team bus so that they might march physically across the county boundary en route to the 1996 Leinster final, he did so knowing that defeat to Offaly would, most probably, expose his act to vicious parody.
Yet, Griffin was strong enough in his conviction that that Wexford team needed to feel different about itself to those of the previous 20 barren years.
Kidney's extraordinary coaching success has been rooted in that same kind of willingness to try the unorthodox. We hear ad nauseum that he is not a particularly technical coach, that he is a man who delegates smartly with a knack for co-ordinating disparate personalities into something identifiable as a team.
He also has, historically, been sufficiently humble to acknowledge if he needs help.
When Munster lost their 2007 Heineken Cup quarter-final to Llanelli, the players called a meeting with Kidney at which they made clear their belief that his attack coaching wasn't up to the desired mark.
In a different environment, such insubordination would have been a recipe for disaster. But, in Kidney's dressing-room, the promise made was to covet honesty above any individual's sensitivity. He preached a gospel of openness and was not about to blink now if it resulted in a blinding white light being shone in his own face.
As Ronan O'Gara wrote of that time: "Deccie knew the players' feelings on the issue and accepted it in the right spirit."
Today, the Ireland camp palpably aches for a bit of that Munster candour. Trouble is, lines of communication are trickier within an international squad.
The bonds people form can be short-term and, sometimes, plain illusory. A Six Nations gig is, essentially, just a two-month suspension of reality from day-to-day life with the provinces.
When Brian O'Driscoll spoke before the November internationals of a need for players to re-prioritise Ireland duty over club ambitions, he was hinting at a creeping sense that the 2009 Grand Slam had all but been declared some kind of final destination for the national team.
Ever since that Mardis Gras in Cardiff, there has been no consistency of performance, no discernible sense of growth. In the seven Six Nations tournaments between 2003 and 2009, Ireland lost a total of nine championship matches. In the three- and-a-half tournaments since, they've lost eight.
Kidney is, almost certainly, not going to have his contract renewed and – as such – finds himself in a deeply invidious position now.
Because the same little mind tricks that are deemed the genius of a winning coach curdle into jarring irritations for a losing one. His gentle, hand-on-the-shoulder style of one-to-one philosophy is now of no use to Ireland. The players know his reign is coming to an end and, therefore, hear a different voice when he speaks.
His needless change of captain has backfired shockingly and his team selection for Murrayfield was so out of sync with the conservatism that has been his signature, you had to wonder if it was referenced by some innate desire to puzzle his critics.
No question, there is something wretched in the spectacle of a Grand Slam-winning coach being exposed to the cant and vitriol that fell Kidney's way immediately after that Scotland defeat.
In the history of sporting profligacy, Ireland's defeat will soar with the classics. The figures of 71pc possession, 77pc territory, and 124 ball carries (to Scotland's 35) must be burned into the players' psyches today, as if with a branding iron.
Yet, how culpable can a coach truly be when those players' minds overheat?
When Keith Earls bolts into a clearing with the best centre in the world running a perfect support line on his shoulder, yet takes the ball to ground, is it reasonable to blame a man in the stand?
But Kidney will know, too, that coaching is all about authority and – just now – his is threadbare.
When he looks at his own coaching staff this morning, he will recognise that his own successor may well be among them.
When he looks at his captain, he will see a good player who has become a ghost. And, when he looks at the kid he must, surely, retain at pivot against France, he will see a gamble that flies in the face of probably just about every impulse he has known as a rugby coach.
True, the epidemic of injuries suffered has been ruinous to this campaign. But when inspiration was needed from the top, little was forthcoming. If anything, Kidney looks resigned to his fate, a man suddenly aware that his book of tricks is empty.
The players will drive on through pride, anger and, presumably, a desire to be Lions tourists in Australia this summer. But they do so now, essentially, from a parallel world to that occupied by their coach.
Kidney's love of 'The Lion King' movie is, apparently, drawn to a particular scene that focuses on leaving the past behind. Today, cruelly, the past seems the only friend he has.