Thursday 23 May 2019

Dempsey's ambition sparked by giant leap of faith

Having spent all of his years in Dublin, it would have been easier for Girvan Dempsey to stay but the steely coach has never been content to wallow in the comfort zone

Girvan Dempsey is enjoying his role as attack coach at Bath but admits he is very ambitious when it comes to climbing up the coaching ladder. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Girvan Dempsey is enjoying his role as attack coach at Bath but admits he is very ambitious when it comes to climbing up the coaching ladder. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Interview: David Kelly

Girvan Dempsey has had doubters throughout his career. They were some in the press box and even more in the bleachers every time he wore the green of Ireland or the blue of Leinster who misunderstood not only what they felt he should have been but also what he felt he should have been.

Some thought he should just grow his hair long, get an all-over tan and come over all Gallic and inspirational. Some reckoned his confidence was, at times, irretrievably shattered. Some even said he didn't have enough obvious desire.

Fortunately the people that mattered - coaches, peers, family, and crucially, himself - had a keener sense of perspective.

Three Triple Crowns amassed from 82 Irish caps - that searing try in the Twickenham corner - and three trophies in a 14-year career with Leinster amplified the sense of mutual trust in his assured ability to consistently deliver what those closest to him faithfully demanded.

Too many focused on what he couldn't do, rather than what he always did.

When he hung up his boots, swapping playing gear for training garb, his single-minded application translated seamlessly.

Whether as an Ireland 'A' coach or with Leinster's second string, he consistently delivered, while also greasing the wheels of the best lubricated playing machine in European, or perhaps even world, rugby as their academy manager.

As their backs coach, he transformed the transition from former champions of Europe to their berth as kingpins in Bilbao last May.

And then, after 23 years, he turned his back on it all, bidding farewell to Dublin, Leinster and Ireland.

For someone often decried as an occupier of the comfort zone, this was indeed a leap of faith. His own.

He had out-grown Leinster; after dabbling with teams in England and New Zealand, the time had come to free himself from the umbilical cord to which he had been attached since he was a child.

His drive may be softly-spoken but is delivered with a determined candour. Some might fob it off with the proverbial concession to being the best one can be and such.

But he already believes that. So he believes there can be more.

"Oh no, I'd be very ambitious," he says. "I've chased this. I've been on Ireland 'A' coaching teams, Emerging Ireland with Allen Clarke.

"I've been involved in Japan with Joe Schmidt when he brought the senior team there last year and a few Ireland camps.

"So I've tasted that level and have a good grounding of all that. That is another element in all of it.

"You see Kiwis who go abroad to gain that experience, it is almost a pre-requisite for them to develop and move on into higher roles.

"So that was one of the factors. But I'm very ambitious in terms of moving on up the coaching ladder."

It had seemed, in his latter days at Leinster, that the ladder was being removed from under him; the arrival of Stuart Lancaster hinted at a scenario where there was one too many cooks in the kitchen.

The surprise was not that Dempsey chose to move when the opportunity arose to become backs coach at Bath; it would have been even more surprising had he decided to stay.

Stomping

"There would have been a part of that in it," he concedes as his side return to Dublin for the second of the back-to-back games in his old Lansdowne Road stomping ground this evening.

"But it was also about looking at the opportunity and vision of Bath. I had a clearly-defined role in Leinster whether it was starter plays, first-phase defence and some general attack with Stuart.

"But obviously Stuart was a senior coach. I had been head coach of the 'A' team and coached the U-20s.

"I had led the U-20s to two B&I Cups and two semi-finals playing really good rugby. So that was always an ambition of mine, to have more say in the programme.

"I loved Leinster but as a coach, I wanted to look at other opportunities. It would have been quite easy to stay in the same role. I needed to develop.

"I suppose another thing was as a player I never travelled either, so this was something new."

And so in late June he took the red-eye expresses over and back - he marvels at how Lancaster has been doing a similar journey for so long - before moving the family over in August.

Peter (9) and Patrick (6) are thriving in local schools while Dempsey's wife Anne-Marie can work remotely.

All he has to do is make his job work. No pressure, then. But there is.

The more cut-throat nature of life outside the Irish bubble has its inevitable risks; Bath are already out of Europe while they languish at the wrong end of the Premiership table.

What seems outwardly to be a convoluted succession plan - and one most un-English - will see Todd Blackadder, eventually, cede his head coach role with Stuart Hooper, an erstwhile legend, taking over.

It's a plan, of sorts, but best-laid plans can be rent asunder by results; only this week, one of his former colleagues, Bernard Jackman, got the bullet while in nearby Leicester, the rumour mill continues to swirl around Geordan Murphy.

Personal ambition can often be undermined by professional realities.

"It certainly is challenging and the Premiership is very different from the PRO14," he agrees.

"We're fortunate to have good structures in place, long-term development with academies, building our own model for the future on and off the field.

"Listen, we're not happy with where we are at the moment."

This particular fortnight has been unusual for him as, so soon, he is reminded of the juggernaut he left behind as well as being brutally re-awoken to the mammoth task facing his new team.

"It was definitely a strange feeling. There was nervousness around knowing where Leinster are as a club and the quality they have in the squad.

"I know their potential, their systems and their players. But there's excitement in it too.

"I met a few of the staff the night before and then it was a bit weird the next day, being in the other dressing-room, seeing the familiar warm-up."

Leinster brought out the best in Bath last weekend; whether they can do so again - even with repeated levelling conditions - is debatable.

Reckons

Dempsey reckons Leinster fired just 25pc of their shots last week while his own side were only able to pull off one of his plays.

"We lost the game, that's the way you look at it, black and white. We did a lot of the things we said we would and did them well, but we had chances and didn't execute or get points.

"Leinster are a champion team and won those championship moments in the game.

"There's nothing better than playing the European champions to focus the mind, you have to get your stuff in order and do what you need to do, otherwise you'll be on the end of a lashing."

It seems likely that for his career to continue to flourish there may be yet more short-term pain in store before he recoups the long-term gains.

"As long as we are growing, and I can add value, I'm happy."

  • Leinster v Bath, Live, BT Sport 2, 5.30

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