We're not too far away – Kidney
DURING the summer months when Ireland are not on tour, Declan Kidney is a regular visitor to UCC's playing fields in Bishopstown, Cork.
The Ireland coach cycles the four or so miles from his house to the grounds – rugby, Gaelic games, soccer and cricket – every couple of days and exercises.
Kidney is just one of a host of well-known sporting figures regularly seen exercising or spectating in the many acres of beautifully maintained sports fields.
It is not unusual to find, at different times, people like former world champion Sonia O'Sullivan, current international athlete Ciaran O'Lionaird, former GAA All Star Paul McGrath and, invariably, a host of former and current rugby players pop up during their close season.
Those who go there are allowed their anonymity, which is one of the perks of the greenbelt location in Cork's western suburbs. It make for an excellent work-out for the 53-year-old Ireland coach. It's also, one imagines, a huge stress relief.
Kidney is a man under pressure these days. His team isn't delivering; Ireland's championship has turned from initial optimism to dust and ashes. Ireland are now in a damage-limitation exercise and, as ever, his future is the hottest topic for debate.
"I'm sleeping great," he laughed yesterday. "I'd probably like to be exercising a bit more but I'll be out on the pitch this afternoon so it won't be too bad."
Stress is inherent in a coaching position, especially when you are coaching a national team. Since the halcyon days of 2009 when the 61-year gap to the Grand Slam success of 1948 was bridged, the pressure to repeat that success has been growing year on year.
As the seasons have passed without that success being replicated, the pressure Kidney is being exposed to is horrendous. And without his summer exercise routine, it cannot be easy to keep grounded.
Ireland, as a team, are a frustrating entity. Against Wales, they scaled the heights of magnificence during the opening 40 minutes but were then outscored in the last 30 minutes of the game and won hanging on.
That theme of being outplayed and outscored in the last quarter of matches is, Kidney acknowledged, a frustrating development in Ireland's game.
"We probably haven't taken the opportunities that have come our way in the last 20 minutes," he said.
"That's one of the things that's under our control. There are other things I know we can do to get better. I'll work with the people involved to get that right but also we have to look at our discipline in the last 20 minutes in particular because most of the points that we've given away have been penalties."
Under Kidney, Ireland have not been shy in scoring tries and their defence this season has been a particular strength, as referenced by the coach.
"This season we've conceded four tries, including November, and three of those were when we had a man in the bin. So when we've 15 fellas on the pitch, we've only conceded one try. You have to build that belief into players and, if you can believe in that, then you don't give away those penalties. So that will be one of the themes of the last 20 minutes.
"They are knocking on the door, that's the frustrating thing about it. The recurring theme is that you could say, 'well, we've tried not to make excuses but if one pass went to hand then all of a sudden a whole lot of things change.'
"So it's a case of staying the course with it. We've been expansive to suit our skill set and, when you're expansive, it can look as if you're making a few errors, but we have to go for it.
"That's the nature of the side that we have, so we have an attacking mindset that we're looking to exploit. The trouble is when you are that attack-orientated, you leave yourself open to a bit more criticism that we're just not playing that pressure game totally.
"And we need to trust in our defence. We're not too far away."
The coach is steadfastly refusing to become immersed in speculation on his future despite constant media enquiries. However, he is confident that when he does vacate his position, he will leave a very positive, exciting and healthy Ireland team behind.
"When we play against France, if they get a win over what will be a very good French team, they'll blossom," he said. "Then we'll have those injured lads coming back in and we'll have a real strong unit.
"It will never be as strong as you want. There are obviously some positions that you would want to build up more than others. There's a queue for a few positions, and then there's a shorter queue for some of the others.
"So all the time you're building on it but when we get the win, then we can take a look at who won the match and who is to come back into the group.
"We are working off a 45pc injury rate, which is absolutely huge. We've worked around it and got on with it but it's a fact. We're concentrating on this group that we have and we have good young fellas coming through now – if you like, our 'medium management' players – and they are learning to take over from the senior group. There's a whole group that are learning in it."
The treadmill that is the Six Nations is obviously exacting some price from the Ireland coach. He wouldn't be human otherwise. Those in Hamilton suggested he cut a dejected figure in the aftermath of that particular horrific mauling. The pressure is no less great this time around.
Perhaps he's simply masking or coping with it better. Or maybe it's his improved sleeping habits.
"This is not so much a job as a lifestyle," he said. "Realistically, if you don't sleep, you're not going to make good decisions the next day. So sleeping's part and parcel of it then too.
"You have to organise your day and make the decisions at the right time. Sometimes you sleep on your decisions and then you know when you're sleeping well, you wouldn't be too far off the mark... I seem to nod off okay!"