Ex-Leinster coach: I got hate mail and was abused in pubs for comments on Munster and Kidney
Professional sports interviews are often more jargon-filled than political manifestos, with players and coaches seemingly competing with each other to see who can have the highest cliché per sentence ratio.
Anyone who says anything remotely interesting – i.e honest – is usually labelled a ‘loose cannon’, a ‘straight shooter’ or a ‘troublemaker’.
So when the occasional sports figure arrives and doesn’t feel the need to parrot the standard interviewee answers, it stands out even more since they are such an endangered species.
Former Leinster backs coach David Knox helped shape one of the most memorable backlines European rugby has ever seen but his candidness during his three-year spell in Ireland was just as noteworthy as his offensive philosophy.
While empowering a back division featuring names like Contepomi, D’Arcy, O’Driscoll, Hickie and Horgan to play heads up rugby regardless of field position, Knox was also open about his thoughts on opposition teams, their players and coaches.
The Australian gave a widely-publicised interview to the Irish Independent as he departed in 2008 after three seasons in Dublin, where he questioned Munster’s forward-orientated style of play while also querying whether Ireland would be better off with a foreign coach rather than replacing Eddie O’Sullivan with Declan Kidney.
His comments generated a lot of debate in Ireland, which also extended to Sydney, where Knox returned to after his stint with Leinster.
He tells Independent.ie of the vitriolic reaction to his comments among Irish rugby fans based in Australia.
“One thing I mentioned was that I thought Ireland should have a foreign coach,” he says.
“People thought it was a personal attack on Declan Kidney.
“I actually copped a lot of hate mail for that, people calling me a w****r and saying I wasn’t welcome in Ireland again. There are a lot of Irish people in Sydney and I got abused in pubs, people calling me an Aussie w****r or a tosser.
“Another time some Irish guys physically approached me when I was playing touch rugby in Sydney."
Eight years on, Knox wishes his time here could have ended differently. He has very positive memories about working with such talented attackers at Leinster and feels that all of the good things he said about his time in Ireland were lost in the noise made during the reaction to his other remarks.
“It left a bitter taste in my mouth,” Knox said.
“It wasn’t how I wanted to leave. I didn’t want to leave Leinster. I probably had the greatest array of talent that you could hope for. It was like a dream come true. I didn’t want to leave.”
Knox arrived in Dublin in the summer of 2005 as the backs coach under Australian Michael Cheika, who was brought in as a relative unknown to replace Declan Kidney. Kidney’s one season with the team started promisingly before a walloping at home to Leicester in the Heineken Cup quarter-final left the team in a bad place.
Pieces written at the time captured the expectations people had for a coaching ticket that had enjoyed success at Randwick rugby club in Australia – Cheika would instil a hard edge in the pack while Knox would harness the backline’s best qualities into a devastating offensive juggernaut.
After some early hiccups, the team hit their stride midway through the season with a memorable five-try evisceration of Bath at The Rec, playing the sort of rugby that every neutral wants to see. They followed that up in the Heineken Cup quarter-final with an even more irresistible upset of Toulouse to make the final four, where they were eventually beaten soundly by Munster.
But despite enjoying massive on-field success in that first year, the relationship between head coach and assistant had already deteriorated almost beyond repair, according to Knox.
“I had a huge problem with the coach,” Knox says of his departure from the province in 2008.
“Nobody sort of knows that. I haven’t spoken to Michael Cheika since the day I left Leinster.
“I had a big falling out with him very early, like after two months. I mean I stayed three years, but we hardly spoke. Everyone used to say ‘he doesn’t like it or the weather is bugging him’ but that [Cheika] was the big problem. My life is better without him in it. It is hard because he has gone on to other things. He took Australia to a World Cup final, which was great. But as far as I’m concerned, I’m glad I don’t have any association with him anymore.”
While Knox was a polarising figure during his stint in Ireland, he undoubtedly was an innovative coach. Having played out-half in a Brumbies side featuring Stephen Larkham, George Gregan and Joe Roff, Knox knew how to get a bunch of skilled individuals to mesh as a unit.
His was an ethos of width that we see Connacht implementing with such great effect today.
“We had a certain philosophy,” Knox says about the style he tried to get Leinster to play.
“I wanted to throw the ball around. That was the game I was always taught to play – backing up, support play, looping around, inside support play and dummies. I obviously got Jonathan Sexton when he was pretty young but when I watch Ireland, I still notice things that I showed him.
Knox departed from the team the season before they made the ultimate breakthrough and won the Heineken Cup for the first time, something he admits was tough to take. However, he also points to the purchase of world class talent like Rocky Elsom and CJ van der Linde as big reasons that the coaching team in 2008/09 achieved something they couldn’t while he was there.
After coaching club rugby in Australia after his return home, Knox now works as a school teacher and coach in Sydney, far removed from the days when he worked with some of world rugby’s biggest names. He doesn’t necessarily miss it though, as he detested the way coaching was headed during his last few years at the top level, especially the increasing micro-management of the players.
“I can’t think of anything better than the time I spent on the field with the players,” he says.
“Coaching is not just about being on the field with the players unfortunately. Personally I think that coaching is done in the two hours a day on the pitch. A lot of coaches tell me they get into the office at 6.30 in the morning.
“To me, that’s bullshit. If you have to get into the office at 6.30 in the morning to coach rugby then you obviously don’t know it very well. Obviously you have to watch videos of games and stuff like that but your coaching is done on the field and then you live or die by your result on Saturday.”
It has been eight years since Knox last worked with Leinster’s players, but with the ten year anniversary of their famous Heineken Cup semi-final clash with Munster upcoming, he still looks back on his experience in Dublin fondly, if not the very end.
“I never spoke to any of them [the Leinster players] since I left and I think they sort of think I made a few comments here and there,” Knox says.
“We had a good time and we really had a laugh. I really miss the time we had there and I’d like to see them, although I don’t know if I’m allowed back in Ireland.”