French offer ultimate test for McQuilkin
NEW ZEALAND'S relationship with Irish club rugby is perhaps best demonstrated by the following verse, which comes from a little ditty popular in various AIL clubhouses during the 1990s. It is sung from the perspective of a Kiwi rugby nomad and set to the tune of 'Fairytale of New York'.
"We've got prawns big as sharks, we've got rivers of gold, but I can't get my game here, I'm crap and I'm old. So I'll dress up my CV as good as I can, and go play in Ireland -- it's money for jam."
And it was. Desperate to make waves in the flourishing All-Ireland League, and with Irish rugby still labouring under a crippling inferiority complex regarding the southern hemisphere, clubs were falling over themselves to sign up players with the faintest hint of a Kiwi accent.
This was a time before YouTube and DVDs and migrant players got away with the most outrageous porkies when soliciting Irish clubs.
"First five-eighth with the Waikato Chiefs" would turn out to be "bagman for the Tokoroa Termites", while "6ft 5ins second-row in the style of Colin Meads" translated more accurately as "5ft 10ins prima donna in the style of Bonnie Langford".
There was the story of the star No 8 who was brought over at considerable expense and met at the airport by a fawning club delegation who watched in horror as he tripped on the stairs getting off the plane and broke his ankle.
Coaches were at it too. There was the tale of the Kiwi who claimed to have been on the staff at Canterbury and arrived over on a £40,000 deal with house and car only to coach his club to relegation. It turned out he was landscape gardener.
They would talk incessantly of a place called "back home" (which seemed to be some sort of Nirvana full of adventure sports and compliant women) and spend their down-time watching WWF, bumming drinks and performing the topless haka.
All tongue-in-cheek of course: the Kiwis are generally a likeable lot and certainly not as in-your-face as the Australians who think 'shy' is something you stick a coconut on. And, for all the duds and chancers who used gullible treasurers as a means of getting pocket-money for their OE (overseas experience), there were a fair share of gems who committed to their clubs and time in Ireland.
Andy Melville, Willie Schubert and David Pomeroy are three club stalwarts who spring to mind and there were others such as Dean Oswald, Rhys Ellison, Jason Holland who contributed to the provincial as well as club cause, while the likes of Mike Mullins and Andy Ward took it a stage further to international level.
One Kiwi whose commitment to Irish rugby could never be questioned since he first togged out for Bective Rangers in the early 1990s is Leinster defence coach Kurt McQuilkin.
He had been playing journeyman rugby in England before a visit to his father Noel, who was coaching the Donnybrook club, prompted him to try his luck in Ireland.
McQuilkin went onto become an AIL stalwart with Rangers and Lansdowne as well as becoming a regular in Leinster's midfield. Short of genuine pace but a brilliant tackler, the centre was good enough to earn five caps for Ireland and went on to coach various underage sides within the Irish system before Michael Cheika brought him on board in 2007.
It was an inspired call. After initial teething troubles, McQuilkin found his groove, the players bought into it, and Leinster's defence was the bedrock of last season's Heineken Cup triumph.
We saw the effectiveness of McQuilkin's coaching at Thomond Park last week. Even when losing two men to the sin bin, there was a discipline and confidence coursing through the Leinster's ranks as Munster threw everything at them and it was the primary reason for the visitors' victory.
McQuilkin's system faces the ultimate test against Clermont this evening. These lads can play ball -- with a back three that would cause problems for any side in the world. If Leinster emerge with their try-line intact it will further confirmation of McQuilkin's value to Irish rugby and, while his future under incoming coach (and Clermont's current backs coach) Josef Schmidt has not been confirmed, his fellow New Zealander is understood to be keen to retain his services.
So he should be. Irish rugby does not want this Kiwi returning "back home" just yet.