Sunday 25 September 2016

McQuilkin delighted to be back where he belongs

Published 24/08/2015 | 02:30

McQuilkin in action for Leinster during his playing days
McQuilkin in action for Leinster during his playing days
After five years in New Zealand Kurt McQuilkin jumped at the chance to return to Leinster

There are things you don't expect when interviewing a Kiwi ex-professional from the heart of Colin Meads country. Top of the list is tears.

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But the road that has brought Kurt McQuilkin back to Bray and Leinster rugby has been touched by tragedy. The death of his best friend led to the former Ireland centre sitting down with his wife Barbara to re-assess where they were and where they could be happiest, and it brought them back to Ireland's east coast.

They had left in 2010 to give their daughters the chance to experience life in New Zealand and get to know their grandparents on that side of the world.

Having parted on good terms, McQuilkin hoped that one day the phone would ring and that Leinster would be on the other end of the line.

When Matt O'Connor was relieved of his commission at the end of last season, the province were in desperate need of good men to steady the ship over the course of the summer.

"You always hope. I tell you, without getting too airy fairy, I had what was probably a life-changing event two years ago, my best mate committed suicide," he explains.

"It made me reassess. You have got to be doing the things that you want to do, you're doing things that you enjoy.

"I sat down with my wife Barbara and she asked, 'what made you happy in your working career?'.

"It was easy, Leinster kept coming up. It just kept coming up. And she said, 'right, if the opportunity ever arose again, would you jump at it?' I said, 'without a doubt'.

"I was pretty lucky to get a call from (Leinster chief executive) Mick Dawson a couple of months back, saying 'we're in a bit of a bind, can you come back and help us out in pre-season' (as defence coach), so I nearly took his arm off.

"He said it was for two months; I would have come back for two weeks if the truth be known. It was mad how it happened, like it was meant to be."

As it happens, he'll be back for at least two years, as the province's hectic search for a coach ended at the doorstep of a man he knows well, Leo Cullen.

Now that the move is more permanent, McQuilkin has set up home in Bray once again and is preparing the ground for the rest of the family, who are still in Lake Tapoe.

He had been head coach at his home province, King's County, and was also in charge of the New Zealand Heartland XV. But there was something about his time coaching Leinster between 2007 and 2010 that drew him back and, when the time came, there was no doubt in his mind.

"I guess that being a player and being lucky enough to have captained the side, that's ingrained into your DNA," he says.

Massive

"Then, to have the opportunity to coach and to be involved during that period from 2007-10, that had a massive effect on me as a coach.

"Coaching a club that you really care about, you know? We had a good amount of success at the time and, yeah, it just ingrained something in me.

"It's in my DNA, like Leo, like Girv (Dempsey), Fogs (John Fogarty). . . I was lucky enough to coach them as players and they were outstanding footballers who now have the potential to be outstanding coaches too.

"New Zealand has a 24-hour rugby channel so I was always watching Leinster in the early hours of the morning, roaring at the TV.

"I never lost touch with them, I kept in touch with Jono Gibbes and those sort of lads. So, when this opportunity arose, I thought 'what the hell, you've got to do it' you know? It's not often you get a second chance at a club like Leinster, so I said 'yeah, let's do it'."

McQuikin's relationship with the province began in the early '90s when he packed his bags and left his home to play for a club side near Newcastle.

His father Noel was across the Irish Sea coaching Bective Rangers and, laid up with a knee injury, he came over to visit the folks at Christmas and was offered the opportunity to line out for the Donnybrook club when the injury cleared.

He moved to Lansdowne and stepped up to play for and captain Leinster, picking up five Ireland caps along the way before moving into coaching.

"Irish rugby has been very good to me," he says. "Not only in my playing days but as a coach. I see myself as an Irish-educated coach, I came through the system here with Stephen Aboud and the likes of that and I'm very, very grateful for what they did for me coaching-wise."

He was part of the province's evolution into European champions under Michael Cheika and saw the role that Cullen played in that success.

Now, he will work under the former captain and he likes what he sees in Ireland's newest provincial coach.

"I tell you what, he's very forthright; he knows what he wants and he has a good vision," he says.

"It's not a vision he's just conjured up himself, we have a collective vision, but he has been under some great coaches too.

"Your Cheikas, your Joe Schmidts. . . all of those great coaches that you come in touch with, you take a few things you thought were good from their ethos and add it to your own.

"He has come up with a game-plan, a vision that he sees for Leinster and he's put it into practice.

"He's going to offer a lot to this environment."

The current make-up of the province's coaching ticket is shy on experience, although a specialist backs coach may yet be recruited.

As the senior man with head coach experience, many are looking at McQuilkin as the rock on which the others will lean.

"As you can tell by the hair, yeah," he says with a smile. "It's good, because we have a group of coaches that challenge each other, which is what you want.

"Everyone has an opinion and we're allowed to add that opinion to the pot, it's a good way of coaching.

"We all have our own views, but it's a collective view. We all see the game in much the same way.

Angle

"The 'Leinster way' has been mentioned, we've been brought up in that way and we see the game from a certain angle."

It isn't going to be an easy season for Leinster as the bulk of their first-team squad head off to the World Cup and those left behind are charged with keeping the show on the road.

Many of the players who will play in the coming weeks were still in school when McQuilkin left for New Zealand in 2010, and he has been impressed with the calibre of young men coming through.

"The academy system is, I think, up there with any and not only in Ireland, but all around with regard with the product that they're bringing through," he says. "I look at (Garry) Ringrose, Cian Kelleher, these backs who have a lot of potential and look to have a bit of class about them too.

"I put it back to my first tenure with Leinster back in 2007. Same predicament, World Cup year. . . except the fresh faces then were Cian Healy and Johnny Sexton, these sort of the kids coming through.

"I'm not saying these guys are going to hit those heights, but it has the same potential. It really does."

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