Thursday 8 December 2016

The talented Mr Kidney

True to form, Ireland coach Declan Kidney is a difficult man to pin down, as Brendan Fanning discovers

Published 31/01/2010 | 05:00

At 9.21am, 39 minutes ahead of the appointed time, Declan Kidney texts to suggest a change of venue. He reckons the original choice is very busy and the alternative will be quieter. Hmm. What's he up to? How does he know it's busy -- he's still at home isn't he? Has he rung ahead? More like trying to wreck my head. It's started already.

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I've arrived just as the text lands and check the place out. Sure enough there's a vets' convention -- animal doctors not war veterans -- and there's a fair bit of activity about the place. As it happens though we've rung the night before and the duty manager says the bar will be closed at that hour and he'll open it specially. Text back saying it's fine. He responds: 'Okay.' Not 'grand -- see you there'. Just okay.

He arrives bang on time looking cheery and making small talk. Warm handshake and a minute or two settling in as we rearrange the coffee and scones around the table. Then we get on with the next phase of the operation.

He had suggested that a pre-interview chat would be beneficial to both parties. This immediately rang an alarm bell, but in the circumstances it made absolute sense. Over the years our relationship with the current national coach has been more down than up. This was set against our relationship with his predecessor which was virtually entirely up.

There was the prospect that this 'clear the air' session would leave so much ack ack about the place that it would be unsafe to take off at all. And mileage to Cork ain't what it used to be, especially for stillborn interviews. Whatever. Fasten your seat belts.

Early doors he lobs in a grenade. "Do you want to do this (interview) or do you have to?"

In fairness, it's a question you'd be proud to have asked. Struggle to answer that one honestly. Things progress well enough though. Then, half an hour into the road-clearing exercise, it dawns on me that while on a personal level this is all dandy, it doesn't augur too well for what might be brought back for transcription. Is he running down the clock? Is he sealing off the ball? Will the recorder be turned on in five minutes to be followed 10 minutes later by him looking at his watch, making his excuses, and disappearing out the door?

Naturally enough, he had secured his exit path before we even agreed on the venue. There's a gig involving Uachtarain na hEireann which requires his attendance in fancier duds than he's wearing now. So he'll have to go home and change. Attention to detail, that. Classic Kidney you'd have to say.

* * * * *

Pathological is perhaps the best way to describe Declan Kidney's avoidance of attention. A couple of us were speculating -- on a two-wheeled theme -- on the title of his autobiography, in the unlikely event that such a personal record will ever see the light of day:

Just a cog in the wheel

It's not about the coach

Domestique bliss

From the off he settles into the chair in the way Dustin Hoffman would attend his dentist. "You know I don't like this," he says. You and me both Declan. You and me both.

Should we start with the known knowns, the known unknowns or the stuff we don't know we don't know? It's best to keep it to a few topics we think he feels strongly about -- suspected knowns -- and see if he's prepared to expand.

Declan Kidney is a product of the Irish system: played his rugby in school in Pres Cork, taught and coached there; played and coached club rugby in Dolphin; moved up through the ranks from Irish schools to 19s to Munster to Ireland staff to Ireland boss.

So now he is surveying the scene around him and, we have been assured, going quietly mad about the roads that are impassable for Irish players trying to get into the Ireland team. His team. Roads blocked by players who are not eligible to play for Ireland.

Look at the A squad he selected last week. Aside from those returning from injury, it contains two players -- Mike Ross and Devin Toner -- whose game time is so short as to make their inclusion against the Saxons today remarkable. There is something wrong with a system where an A fixture is not being used to reward form, rather to provide game time that can't be found at provincial level.

Moreover, the highlight of the A season -- the Churchill Cup -- will be ploughing ahead in June without the reigning champions because we have pulled out of it. Why? Because we have the top 30 players going to NZ and Australia with the senior side this summer, and already Kidney had his hands full trying to placate the provinces who will have to start the Magners League without all of those players.

So he's not going to subtract another raft for the Churchill Cup. These are the provinces who are exercised over the Player Management Programme that limits the game time of the same players during the season.

"My job is to make it work," he says. "So that's what I will do. And that will get me in trouble sometimes because I won't speak about that in public. But the important thing is to make it work, not save myself. I'm not holding myself up as holier than thou. There's little subtleties that I'm trying to change.

"We want it to work. We don't want to go down the route and being Irish and picking on one another. If you look at the resources we have against what we've achieved, I think we've achieved an awful lot. And we won't achieve more by not working with one another."

But should he not be doing his nut over this?

"If you want something to work going mad isn't going to help it."

Sometimes mad helps?

"Sometimes. But you need to pick your times. Right?"

Is there madness coming down the track?

"No, I'm not going to role-play like that. My job is to get the best team possible. In lots of ways we have to do what's best for the players. We're allowing the players play to their optimum. How we're getting there is an Irish method. Why knock our methods? A lot of other countries are looking to copy us."

Indeed they've started. England are into their second season of co-operation -- financially induced -- between club and country over access to players, and the amount of rest afforded those players, and we've seen its impact on their Heineken Cup selections.

Another known known about Declan Kidney. He was unhappy about the way his leaving of Leinster was reported in 2005. He went because his father was seriously ill and returning to Munster allowed him to be closer to home. He says only one person asked him but Declan was not a great man at taking calls in those days, and he made no effort to brief anyone on the real issue.

"I wouldn't like to bring it up," he says. "I was disappointing lads in Leinster and in a perverse way that was nearly a compliment. So I mustn't have done too bad and I didn't like leaving them down but to me there was no . . . I wouldn't like them dragged up now but I didn't do them for the wrong reasons. Some things come first. Why didn't I let ye know? I'm not great at that. In hindsight, could I have looked after myself better had I gone about that? Then I would have been just looking after myself. I was letting guys down and I didn't like doing that."

In the circumstances, it was remarkably selfless to take the flak when it could so easily have been diverted, but then two years earlier he had got some useful practice at bearing difficult situations with a stoic look on his face.

When Eddie O'Sullivan's Ireland contract was extended just before Ireland left for the 2003 World Cup in Australia, the implications for Kidney were obvious. Suddenly O'Sullivan had been granted executive powers and it was certain he would dump the assistant the IRFU had given him at the first opportunity. That wouldn't come for another seven months however. First Kidney had to do his 'dead man walking' routine Down Under. It was painful to watch. And surely to walk?

"There was a job to be done and I had to do it."

But you wouldn't be human if you weren't in turmoil?

"That would be no help to the team. What I feel or what I do, that's irrelevant. The team comes first. There's lots of things going on in your life; there's lots of things going on in the lads' lives but you're asking them to park them on Saturdays. Dragging my ass during the week? What right do I have then to ask them to park them when it comes to Saturday?

"Will they be feeling the best humour ever going into every match? No. So they have to bring themselves through some games. There might be some days like in any job when you don't feel like doing it but you can't drag your arse. My role was what my role was, but I had to do it to the best of my ability."

Nearly five years later he was winning his second European title and closing the Munster door behind him in almost fairytale fashion. Going back to Ireland in altogether different circumstances. Like O'Sullivan he would be the head coach with the power to pick the right people around him. His first job was to fly out to watch Ireland's tour of New Zealand and Australia from a discreet distance. And do some recruiting along the way.

"Paul (McNaughton) and myself went out about a week later. The first 48 hours after a final has a sort a life of its own. Tuesday you tried to get some sleep and Wednesday you packed and tried not to think back. You tried not to think about what you were leaving behind you. I can't imagine what it's like for people who have to emigrate and stuff. You just make a decision in life and work ahead, isn't it?

"But there'd be all those feelings still there. It's like every time you go to a match; every time you don't go to match; every time you read a paper. It's just an ingrained part of you. That's the best side and the worst side of it."

Rather the worst side of it all for Kidney -- far more painful than public scrutiny -- is having to be the bearer of bad news. He maintains that his career has been guided primarily by the desire to have fun, that that's how it started in school. And even allowing for the savagely competitive nature of professional sport, that it remains fundamental: if you ain't enjoying it then you won't be winning. And those black days when things looked irredeemable?

"There are times when you're spilling your guts out that you can see teams aren't enjoying it and you back off, but sometimes you need to go through that. Or telling a fella he's off the team. It's awful. The younger they are the worse it is. It's not a nice part and there are those parts, but that's why the dressing room after a match is so special. Because you've stuck together through all that."

The Ireland squad move up to Dublin from Limerick this week. The Big Top will be erected and the Six Nations circus will kick off. And the known known that is the awkwardness of the Italians will have Kidney transfixed.

He says that Ireland will be like the bullseye in this Championship, but that every win gained under those circumstances will be twice the value of last season when so much less was expected after a poor autumn. There is comfort with the pressure however.

Kidney likes to quote former manager Brian O'Brien who reckons that you can only be as successful as the people around you want you to be. In that case he's sorted. The time and energy he put into assembling the coaching staff has been well worth it, for not only is it a talented group but one whose disparate personalities seem to work well. We haven't seen them yet in a crisis, but autumn 2008 was a tricky start and they came out the far side of that with flying colours.

"I've been really lucky with that," he says of his colleagues. "People say to me: 'Oh you're always deflecting it'. I'm not. I'm just telling the truth."

* * * * *

His bleeper to tell him to get home and get into his fancy duds has long since gone off, and he's still there. Generous doesn't begin to describe the amount of time he has coughed up for this. And all that's left is to ask him about the photo.

Countless images of Kidney have been captured over the years that reflect him in his natural light, and all of them are with players in the immediate aftermath of victory or defeat. The one that stands out however is from the Heineken Cup lap of honour in 2008. So you push it across the table and ask what he makes of it.

"Oh yeah, yeah" he says, looking unwell. "That was unfortunate. Yeah. I couldn't see him around -- the f**ker!"

The man he was referring to without malice was Billy Stickland, who is the union's official photographer. In fact the shot was taken by David Conachy of this parish. And, like the rest of us, Conachy thought he was capturing a moment where an unfeasibly modest man was taking a rare bow before the Munster fans as he headed for the exit.

"I couldn't believe that got on the front of the paper didn't it? My family had got together and they were all in one block above. And all I saw was them. Not just my wife and kids, but the whole family: brothers, sisters, everything. So all I could see in the stadium was them. I was just looking at them and, sure, like all families we'd have a bit of slagging so I just looked up at them and went like that. Then Billy was around. It was just a family thing. It was not -- it was definitely not what it looked like."

Hardly the first time we didn't know what Declan Kidney was up to. Add it to the list of unknowns.

Sunday Independent

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