Monday 23 April 2018

Final bell rings for Kidney's star pupil

There are no daffodil-waving goodbyes in professional sport and Ronan O'Gara always knew he was closing in on a day that would offend every last ounce of iron in his soul.

Declan Kidney's omission of his fellow Corkman from the Irish squad to face France next weekend is a decision invested with deep significance for both.

It clearly signals the end of O'Gara's international career but also probably the final, profound judgment call of a coach in increasingly desolate waters.

No single player has been more important to Kidney's coaching career than O'Gara and the call to now jettison him will have felt uncomfortably pointed and personal.

It was at Presentation College Cork their relationship formed, O'Gara an ambitious 13-year-old keen to catch the eye of the man who – as he described it – "was in charge of rugby in the school".

Kidney invested a lot of time in O'Gara, making him an almost private project with lunch-time and break-time meetings at which he would draw out a pitch on an A4 sheet of paper and pepper the young fly-half with questions of strategy.


It is actually a moot point what direction O'Gara's career might have taken without that personal coaching touch.

A former No 10 himself, Kidney stretched O'Gara's mental grasp of the position, challenging him to look beyond conventional kicking angles, encouraging him to adjust tactics to suit a different opponent or set of circumstances.

He would be Irish schools coach when O'Gara was first picked for a final trial and Rog has often recounted that first gathering in Blackrock College. As they were talked through the procedures for the day, Kidney asked the group: "Hands up here who wants to play for Ireland!"

A room-full of hands – inevitably – shot up, only for those waving to be told to get out of the coach's sight. "I don't want to have anything to do with ye," said Kidney. "Hands up here who wants to play for a winning Ireland!"

These little mind games became his coaching signature, lapped up by young players who drew reassurance from the almost exaggerated calm he could bring to a dressing-room. But the triggers that worked at underage (and Kidney did guide Ireland to an U-19 world title in 1998) can scrape like pebbles caught under a door with professionals.

When Brian Kerr was appointed Republic of Ireland soccer manager, he quickly discovered that some of those he had coached to storied underage triumphs were far less malleable to his ways as highly paid adults. It is known that O'Gara's relationship with Kidney hasn't been particularly harmonious in recent times, his innate competitiveness becoming a double-edged virtue as Jonathan Sexton squeezed him out of the Irish No 10 shirt.

Irish rugby has produced few players of greater mental strength across the generations, his Grand Slam-winning drop-goal in Cardiff four years ago merely reflecting the norm for a player Kidney's predecessor, Eddie O'Sullivan, once described as having "ice running through his veins".

But O'Gara always wanted to play and, when he didn't, it hurt. Playing support filled him with all the enthusiasm of the daily schedule for a lifer breaking stones. And Rog didn't always conceal that frustration well. If Kidney's personality was a lyric of shrugs and gentle parables, O'Gara's candour could bore holes in an army Saracen.

When O'Sullivan replaced him with David Humphreys early in the second half of an autumn international against Australia in '05, O'Gara left the field fuming.

Aware that his temper was a hissing kettle, O'Sullivan confronted the issue two days later before training at Terenure College.

A frank exchange of ideas followed in full view of the rest of the squad and resulted in newspaper headlines reporting a "massive training ground bust-up" between the two.

Yet, if anything, the argument tightened the relationship between coach and player, O'Gara seeming to appreciate O'Sullivan's willingness to engage with him directly on the issue rather than avoid confrontation.

That has never been Kidney's way. He is uneasy with conflict and far more inclined to identify some kind of mysterious positive in a predicament that, to the naked eye, looks devoid of any. For O'Gara, that line of communication seemed, some time ago, to become a source of irritation.

He played well for Munster on Saturday evening, so it is unlikely – even in the week of his 36th birthday – that he will accept Kidney's decision as necessary.

Almost a quarter of a century on from their first meeting, the old teacher has finally turned away from, arguably, his own greatest personal triumph. For both, the point of separation will have carried a brutally plenary feel.

Irish Independent

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