Monday 16 September 2019

'I've always tried to let the players do the talking' - Declan Kidney on life after Ireland and London Irish rebuild

Ten years on from his Grand Slam season with Ireland, Declan Kidney is overseeing the rebuild at London Irish

‘There was things going on in my life that I had to step out for, so I’m obliged to London Irish for giving me the chance’ Photo: Steve Bardens/Getty Images
‘There was things going on in my life that I had to step out for, so I’m obliged to London Irish for giving me the chance’ Photo: Steve Bardens/Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

"It must be a quiet news week back home, is it?" Declan Kidney wonders, eyebrow arched, as we stand in the sun and bring our interview to a close at London Irish's training base last Thursday.

He knows full well that Joe Schmidt is in the maelstrom having left Devin Toner out of his Ireland squad for the World Cup and can empathise with the pressures and strains that his successor is under. He doesn't miss that part of it.

Declan Kidney and Brian O’Driscoll lift the Six Nations trophy after the 2009 Grand Slam success. Picture: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile
Declan Kidney and Brian O’Driscoll lift the Six Nations trophy after the 2009 Grand Slam success. Picture: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile

Physically, he hasn't changed a whole lot from the days when he was making history in Irish rugby. His under-stated delivery and unassuming manner remain.

As always, he emits a general bafflement as to why anyone would be interested in what he has to say, despite the fact he remains one of Irish sport's most fascinating figures six years after he left his role as Ireland coach and effectively disappeared from public life.

In the previous decade, he guided Munster to two Heineken Cups before ending a 61-year wait for a Grand Slam after being named Ireland coach.

The 2011 World Cup was the great, lost opportunity. Kidney got the balance right off the pitch and the players produced a historic win over Australia, but then came the shuddering defeat to Wales.

The then Ireland manager embraces Seán O’Brien after the World Cup victory over Italy in 2011. Photo: Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images
The then Ireland manager embraces Seán O’Brien after the World Cup victory over Italy in 2011. Photo: Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

That was the high point. A year later they returned to New Zealand and lost 60-0 in the final Test. They never recovered their form and, after a first Six Nations loss to Italy, Kidney was relieved of his commission.

If you're expecting him to re-litigate every decision he made, you haven't been paying attention to the way he operates. If you want grand opinions on the Joe Schmidt era, look elsewhere.

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From his desk at UCC where he spent five years as director of sport, Kidney rejected a series of interview requests and turned down book deals as others had their say on his time in charge. Whatever he thought, he kept it to himself.

"I got a few offers, I decided... who is to say what the future holds but I haven't written anything yet," he says. "I was within UCC and UCC have been brilliant to me. Allowing me to do this (join London Irish) as well, I'm forever obliged to them.

"I really enjoyed my time so far in UCC, who is to say what will happen in the future. I enjoyed working with the students, seeing all the different codes as well too.

"I had the good fortune to work with Dr Con Murphy, finding out what the GAA perspective is. Soccer, frisbee... all sports. I really enjoyed that and it was a very good fit for me for that time in my life.

"There wasn't any media duties then and that was fine too. Media duties are part and parcel of it, we just live in an age where there can be as much written about people in the position I hold as the players.

"I've always found that a little bit strange, that's why I've always tried to let the players do the talking. My job, then, is to put a thing in place to allow them optimise their ability."

That hierarchy is at the heart of Kidney's philosophy.

Still, he has been coaching for four decades and remained hopeful that there might be a way back.

There were family reasons for staying away. His wife Ann died in 2016 and while it's not a topic he wishes to discuss publicly, it had obvious ramifications on his priorities.

When London Irish came calling towards the end of the 2017/18 season, he took the job and recruited his old colleague from Ireland, Les Kiss, to work with club stalwarts Declan Danaher and George Skivington.

Having coached at every level since 1978, he felt he had something to offer.

"I'm old-school. I was doing it before it went professional and I enjoyed it, and now I'm enjoying being paid for it," he says. "That's really what it is. It's nothing about anything other than I actually enjoy coaching, putting teams together.

"You know, it takes a lot to gel. To get that two or three minutes in the dressing-room after a win, a lot of things have to come in place.

"So, if you have the privilege of working with people who are all striving with the one goal in mind, then that's a fairly privileged position to be in.

"I don't think there would be anything more in it than I have enjoyed all of my coaching to date. I probably wouldn't have got back into it if I didn't enjoy it.

"Like life, there's ups and downs but that's part and parcel of anything I suppose.

"I've seen a lot of changes in it... it's never been about me. I've been lucky enough to work with a lot of good players over the years, a lot of fellas who enjoyed themselves.

"In schools, I never let them call themselves the 'B's or the 'C's, but I always enjoyed the different teams in it and the memories I have from those matches would rank up there with some of the other ones as well.

"I'm just lucky I'm in a job that I enjoy, it doesn't feel like work to me.

"You never know, I wasn't going to go too public on it but if there was an opportunity out there... there was obviously things going on in my life that I had to step out for, so I'm obliged to London Irish for giving me the chance

"There were two types of jobs I said I'd be interested in taking and because we were where we were in the league table, there was a good project in this."

With a modern training base that at once caters for the amateur and professional set-ups and acts as a hub for the Irish community in south London, the club will also move back closer to their traditional base when they move to Brentford's state-of-the-art new stadium at the beginning of next season.

That, Kidney says, is an added incentive as they look to consolidate their position in the Premiership having secured promotion from the Championship last season.

"I remember someone saying to me at the start, 'don't tell us about your four- or five-year plan now, because that's rubbish', and they're right," he explains.

"You would have a vision as to where we could go, but in the meantime you have to deal with the day-to-day stuff and that's what we're doing.

"In talking to the owner Mick Crossan there was a side to it about getting us back into the Premiership. If there's Irish fellas available well and good, but they'd need to be the right Irish fellas.

"The lads at home are so well catered for now there's not going to be that freedom.

"Like the island of Ireland we're very multicultural too. We have our Irish contingent, but we have 11 other countries represented. That's not a whole lot different from home.

"Moving back into Brentford... To get there in the Premiership, that's like another trophy that we have to play for that others don't have to play for, so rather than it being an extra pressure it's an extra carrot.

"If we can get there, there will be people of a certain vintage who remember the time when London Irish were ground-sharing at The Stoop and it was the hottest ticket in town on a Saturday afternoon. If you can get back to those times...

"But from a playing point of view you want to get the team as strong as we can, play as good a football as we can and then hopefully the crowds will come into us."

Seán O'Brien and All Black Waisake Naholo will arrive after the World Cup, while Paddy Jackson is already in situ and training away with the team. Recruiting the out-half was not a popular choice and cost the club some sponsorship and good-will, but Kidney felt it was worth the risk.

He won't, however, try and recruit any players within the Irish system unless they are surplus to requirements.

"We have purposefully not gone after any Irish players, we're not going to be in competition with the provinces," he said.

"Should someone want the experience of playing over here, with our environment (they're welcome) but there's nothing to be gained in that.

"There's history between the two (the IRFU and the Exiles), some of it good and some of it wasn't managed as well as it should have been. I'm not going to throw any stones, I don't fully know the history of it, but the club has changed somewhat from the early days. The world is such a smaller place now.

"What we would like to do is, all of those lads are more than welcome to us here, but we're certainly not going to upset the Irish system by trying to out-bid anyone.

"I wouldn't do that anyway. Home would be too important to me, but we'd be very happy to welcome anyone who would like to come."

Home remains where the heart is and, while it would be easy to have some bitterness about the way his time ended, Kidney is at peace with his time in the job.

"Every time you're involved with your national team is a special day. I'm not trying to give you a line, every day was special," he reflects.

"The days you win are... those two imposters, success and failure, you know? I know how hard I worked when results were going one way and I know how hard I worked when results were going the other way. So, I just enjoyed every single day I had at it.

"In life all you can do is the best you can, I wouldn't put myself out there as much good but that's all I've done in my life; the best I can.

"I'd a fantastic time. You'd always learn things, but I enjoyed every single minute."

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