Vincent Hogan: Declan Kidney - Trusting his instinct
Published 26/02/2010 | 05:00
He will have felt an unfamiliar breath on his neck this week.
Outwardly, Declan Kidney won't have shown it of course. Actually, he was reserved as a stenographer, because that is how he works. Head down, tuned to business. Yet he can't but have noted the swell of surprise around that room in Killiney last Tuesday. The soft murmur of analysis as his selection for Twickenham was unwrapped to media.
There is an irrational edge to the energies beating in and around the Irish team this week, for we live in an era when success and failure are relentlessly over-examined.
So, lose in London tomorrow and Kidney's Ireland will be back on a Petri dish. Jolted into a world where last year's Grand Slam will hang as nothing more than an extravagant little footnote at the bottom of their story. History moves in sudden leaps at this level and two defeats in a fortnight won't sit easy on the national patience.
He knows it. He will have seen it in the journalists picking through his omission of Leo Cullen and Ronan O'Gara like magpies working breadcrumbs. He will have sensed it even in the eyes of his own players.
For the first time since succeeding Eddie O'Sullivan as Irish coach, Declan Kidney maybe finds himself in a lonely place now.
Yet, he stays inscrutable, his thought processes concealed behind a veil of carefully chosen language. He offers little ledges of hope to those he has demoted and gentle counsel to those upgraded. Is he fearful? Who can tell?
Virtually his whole life in rugby has been a story of progress and achievement. With PBC (five Munster junior cups, three senior), the Irish schools (a Triple Crown), Irish U-19s (the '98 World Cup), Munster (two Heineken Cups) and -- now -- Ireland (Grand Slam), Kidney has shown an uncanny understanding of how to nurture a sense of team.
He plays the minds of players, endlessly tossing little signals their way, fostering a mood of easy kinship. When it was put to him on Tuesday that the selection was tough on Cullen particularly, his response was "that would be an understatement."
There is something of Sean Boylan in how he works a room, the instinctive grace, the practiced humility, the sense of always wanting to reach through the curtain of a demoted player's hurt and offer consolation. Kidney is the least demonstrative coach in the Six Nations. And, arguably, the shrewdest.
And yet, it is sobering to think how the IRFU equivocated as O'Sullivan's reign ended after a disappointing Championship in '08. To begin with, the Union had a short-list of three. John Mitchell and Jake White eventually ruled themselves out of contention, leaving Kidney as the last man standing.
It could be, of course, that their worries were local. Run a finger along the line of Kidney's career in coaching and the single, discernible dip sits after the '04 Six Nations, when his uncomfortable union with O'Sullivan was brought to a compassionate conclusion. The Union offered him a virtual desk-job alternative, Age Group Development Manager.
He thanked them for their kindness and walked.
And what followed was a year of deep flux in his life. He became coach of Newport Gwent Dragons, then quit the post after three months without seeing them play a single competitive game. His eye had been turned by the opportunity to coach Leinster, the province coming off a calamitous year under Gary Ella.
Kidney would do the Leinster job for roughly nine months, then take himself home to Cork after a meek Heineken Cup quarter-final surrender to Leicester Tigers at Lansdowne Road. The circumstance of that defeat left a sour taste. His team selection was criticised and it emerged afterwards that he had already begun negotiations to return to Munster.
Former Ireland and Leinster No 8 Victor Costello was a controversial omission from that team and recalls the time philosophically. "We would have been all very excited about getting Declan to Leinster because of our relationship with him in the international set-up," he explains.
"But, when he came to Leinster, I don't think he spoke the language. I don't think he ever really bought into the city thing. And I don't mean to be critical here because I'm actually quite fond of Declan.
"He dropped me for my final game and, you know, that was hard to take at the time. But I kind of know the way he ticks and what he was thinking. Looking at it in black and white, you'd be saying: 'Oh b***s, he dropped me!' But there's a couple of things throughout the season with Declan that you'd always remember and even carry on to your next career.
"He was that much of a deep thinker. I just don't think the Leinster thing, the city thing suited him. I thought that his heart was still in Cork. When he left, 'high and dry' would be the wrong expression to describe how we felt. But we were certainly left disappointed in relation to what we expected from our knowledge of him. For us, he didn't perform.
"And we all felt a little let down. In saying that, he made that decision and proved it was the right one, winning the European Cup the following year."
In his first stint with Munster ('98 to '02), the province had reached two Heineken Cup finals and one semi-final, losing all three by tiny margins. Yet, here too, he was almost an accidental tourist.
Munster had tried to recruit a high-profile overseas coach, but Welshman John Bevan and, subsequently, Andy Leslie of New Zealand fame, both equivocated. In the end, Kidney agreed to take leave of absence from his teaching job at PBC to coach the province alongside Niall O'Donovan.
The memory seems to belong to another age now. Kidney and O'Donovan were the only coaches, Gerry Holland was manager, Dave Mahedy looked after player fitness. It was a skeleton staff that created an extraordinary chemistry.
John Langford once spoke of the admiration he had for Kidney's man-management. "He always comes up with something new," said the Australian, a revelation in that first incarnation of Munster as a European force. "You have to admire the way he can place a different emphasis on every match."
Initially, Kidney's appointment as O'Sullivan's No 2 with Ireland drew a few glib "dream team" lines from media, but any analysis that flew beyond the superficial wondered if the two could actually work together.
In his autobiography, 'Never Die Wondering,' O'Sullivan conceded last year "Ours had been an arranged marriage that, in hindsight, was fundamentally flawed.
"It was born of the IRFU's desire to have us both on the one management ticket, without any great forethought for the likely working dynamic that would develop between us. I can say now that it was probably unfair on us both."
A contemporary of theirs agrees now, saying: "I thought it was a mistake from the start. They weren't the best of buddies, it wasn't the way to go forward. It caused friction. You had two guys who were used to being No 1. Neither of them was to blame. It was just never going to work.
"In hindsight, the fact it didn't was probably the best thing that happened to Declan."
He couldn't have imagined so in '04, but, six years on, the reigning IRB Coach of the Year exists in a very different place. The recent defeat in Paris was Ireland's first in 14 months. And to make the necessary repairs now, Kidney can call on a world-class backroom staff in the likes of Gert Smal, Alan Gaffney, Les Kiss and Paul McNaughton. It is said he delegates well.
Yet, should Ireland lose tomorrow, it is Kidney who will be at the very axis of debate. His selection is a gamble, yet one that -- for now -- he cannot undermine with backward glances. He will, we can be certain, have been sensitive this week to how Cullen and O'Gara probably see themselves at the bottom of a dark well now.
As Costello explains: "Declan thinks deeply on everything. In some ways, beyond what most people do. He has this psychological edge. It's going to be tough on Leo and tough on Rog. And he will acknowledge to them how hard it must be.
"But he'll have a masterplan. And you need to kind of accept where he's going with this masterplan, even if it hurts. It might take years down the track to understand it, but that's the way he thinks.
"I mean it's hard for players to look at the bigger picture. They only feel what's happening there and then. And it's a massive blow to them, a massive hit to their self-confidence. But Declan would think hard about his actions. Whether you believe him at the time or not, you will end up believing him. He will have a plan and, even if you don't see it there and then, you will eventually.
"Rog and Leo will be hurting but, by Saturday, that page will have been turned."