Tuesday 21 February 2017

Alan Quinlan: Declan Kidney and Eddie O'Sullivan too good not to be part of Irish system

It is all well and good reaching out to foreign coaches but we need to get top class Irishmen back into the IRFU's system

Alan Quinlan

Published 10/09/2016 | 02:30

Declan Kidney still has lots to offer. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Declan Kidney still has lots to offer. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

I am sitting in a room staring at this man who holds my future in his hands. We talk for well over an hour. Rather I do most of the talking, he does most of the listening. Yet when he speaks, his words strike a chord. I'm 25 and approaching the end of my fourth year as a professional rugby player.

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Did I know then I'd get another 11 years out of the game? You wouldn't have thought so from the nature of this conversation. Things aren't going great. There is a possibility I may not get another contract at all. Yet I do.

Something this man says clicks with me. I was a bit wild back then, prone to indiscipline, bad timekeeping, a bit of a messer.

And it frustrated people. That season, I had played in all six pool games in the Heineken Cup yet when it came to the quarter-finals, I got dropped. And it hurt. My confidence dipped. I asked why I was out and got told in blunt terms. I needed to be more professional, consistent and focussed if I was going to deliver for a team.

There and then, I was at a career crossroads. Which was how I came to be in Cork, having a meeting with this man who six years later would guide Munster to their first Heineken Cup win, two years before he helped us win the competition for a second time. Did I think then that I would get the man of the match award in that 2008 final?

Being honest, I didn't even think I'd get a second chance. But I did. Declan Kidney, the guy I was talking to for over an hour, laid it on the line, telling me that I had to get a bit more serious about my career and fast. So when I left that room, I didn't just have a new contract but also a new attitude.

All this came back to me earlier this week when the discussion started about Stuart Lancaster and his appointment to the Leinster coaching ticket.

"Why aren't Irish coaches getting these jobs?" a friend of mine texted.

I was about to reply, 'Well, who else is out there?'

And then I stopped. Kidney is out there, the only man to win a Grand Slam with Ireland since 1948.

Then there is his predecessor, Eddie O'Sullivan, winner of three Triple Crowns. Now you could say that I am buttering up to my former coaches. Yet it's not like that at all. When he was Ireland coach - he kept a distance from his players. He didn't spend any time mollycoddling guys.

Having worked with Eddie for so long, I could have plenty of reasons to give out about him. But you have to see things for what they are: he is a brilliant rugby coach and it is a shame that he is not included on the Ireland coaching scene in some capacity.

I know he wants back in. Does Kidney? I can't say for certain that he does but what I am sure of is that neither he nor O'Sullivan should be finished.

The argument that the game has passed them by does not wash with me. Both men should have a part to play in Irish rugby's future as well as its past.

Now there is no doubt that rugby has certainly changed from 2000 when I had that conversation with Declan. He has been out of the professional game for three years now; Eddie has also been idle for a year.

But that does not mean they can't re-learn. It is more important for a head coach to have the skills to manage the environment and a group. And one of Kidney's great strengths was to surround himself with vibrant and energetic guys.

In 2009, he brought in Les Kiss and Gert Small, who had both experience and a point to prove, as well as Alan Gaffney. All three men were top-class coaches. A Grand Slam followed.

So I wouldn't agree with the idea that either he or Eddie are finished because the modern day head coach can't just be the possessor of a brilliant rugby brain. He also has to be an astute manager of men.

That this discussion is taking place at all comes down to what happened this week when Leinster thought outside the box and looked outside the country (just as they did in the summer when Graham Henry was brought in on a short-term basis).

Lancaster is a smart appointment. He has a good CV, despite what happened at the last World Cup. His arrival, following on from Andy Farrell's, does not make Ireland a rehab centre for English failures.

Far from it. Add in Pat Lam, Kiss, Joe Schmidt and Rassie Erasmus and you have some of the finest coaches in world rugby, all working here.

Their experiences, their cultural diversity, can not only help young Irish players but also young Irish coaches. Think about it. You have Samoan, Australian, South African, New Zealanders as well as English rugby cultures all working here. How can that not be good for the Irish game?

In an ideal world I would prefer to see more Irish coaches doing these jobs but with this expertise available, we are not in a position to overlook quality when it comes knocking on our door.

Certainly Lancaster coming in is good for Leinster. And also a chance for him to banish the demons from the World Cup. By getting back out on the training field, his confidence can be rebuilt.

He will enjoy being involved in the nitty gritty of coaching and being away from the pressure of a head coach's role where you have to drop guys, walk to someone's room and say they are not on the team.

Those dirty jobs are horrible. Lancaster had to do it with England. Now he just has to coach and be a support to Cullen. He'll thrive in that environment and Cullen will thrive from working alongside him.

Cullen could easily have vetoed the call. He could have been too proud and seen him as a possible threat to his job. Instead he has looked at this as an opportunity to make his club, and by extension, himself, better.

Still it is also worth remembering that we have so many Irish guys cutting their teeth abroad. David Humphries, Jonathan Bell, Mark McCall, Jeremy Davidson, Ronan O'Gara, Mike Prendergast and Bernard Jackman are outside the country and outside the system. At some point they have to be brought back into it.

You would hope, though, that in the same way that Jim Williams, Alan Gaffney, Michael Cheika and Tony McGahan all benefited from being involved with the Irish provinces before going back to work in Australia, that the aforementioned Irish coaches would be given a chance at some stage here.

And while we are at it, it would also be nice if two of the most successful Irish-born coaches in the game's history are remembered too.

It has to be said that the IRFU gave Anthony Foley and Leo Cullen their chance. Maybe O'Sullivan and Kidney deserve another chance, though.

Irish Independent

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