Saturday 7 December 2019

'It's tough to hang on through the provincial pathway. A lot of us have to go to pastures new' - The Irishmen abroad

Declan Kidney and John Muldoon are embarking on interesting journeys across the Irish Sea. Tomorrow, they go head-to-head when top-of-the-table Bristol host London Irish

London Irish director of rugby Declan Kidney is enjoying his latest assignment in the game. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
London Irish director of rugby Declan Kidney is enjoying his latest assignment in the game. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Their thick accents betray them, two Irishmen on the furthest south-western edge of London town switching their chat from nothing to everything and not really paying any mind to the difference.

A pair of emigrants, one much older and wiser than the other, like so many thousands of compatriots completing their daily business in the city.

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Former Connacht skipper John Muldoon is similarly energised by his coaching role at Bristol. Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images
Former Connacht skipper John Muldoon is similarly energised by his coaching role at Bristol. Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

The scene is a sylvan setting, though the trees are shorn of their summer clothes; London Irish's 'A' team have just comprehensively bullied their counterparts from the West Country, Bristol Bears.

The parting pleasantries are a reminder that the pursuit which unites them is only a game.

"Ah sure, ye had to win one of them this week!" Declan Kidney's cherubic features explode in exclamation as the man from Ballincollig in Cork clutches the shovel-like hands of John Muldoon.

"We'll be out for revenge now ya boy!" says the man from Portumna in Galway, the familiar bald pate concealed by a beanie.

David Humphreys is the director of rugby at Gloucester. Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images
David Humphreys is the director of rugby at Gloucester. Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Kidney turned 60 last month and is revelling in his maiden overseas voyage beyond Irish shores as a director of rugby. The two-time European Cup winner with Munster and Grand Slam-winning coach remains the godfather of the professional era in Ireland.

Muldoon is merely a pup in comparison, although 327 games for Connacht gave him quite the grounding.

Dazzling

He is in his second season as defence coach with the newly minted West Country outfit - who added another £1m player this week, dazzling Fijian wing Semi Radradra will join Charles Piutau from next season.

Mark McCall has had more than his fair share of success in the same position with Saracens. Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Mark McCall has had more than his fair share of success in the same position with Saracens. Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Tomorrow, the pair will meet again at Bristol's Ashton Gate Stadium but with the stakes much higher than on this damp Tuesday evening.

London Irish are top of the league and hope to stay there; Bristol are eyeing the big prize too and, given that head coach Pat Lam, along with his erstwhile captain Muldoon, once drove unlikely lads Connacht to a fairytale PRO14 title triumph, only a fool would dismiss their chances.

With Saracens, and their Bangor coach Mark McCall, torpedoed from the title race, there is still a good chance of an Irish hand grasping the title. After all, half of the clubs in the league can boast Celtic conductors in some shape or form.

Kidney first worked with Muldoon when he brought the back-row on the 2009 tour of North America with an Irish side still wallowing in an historic Grand Slam triumph, the country's first in 60 years.

"A top-class man, a good man," recalls Kidney but what he remembers most is his third cap, the infamous 66-28 drubbing in New Plymouth when Jamie Heaslip was sent off after just 15 minutes.

"I remember against New Zealand, he broke his arm and immediately got back into the defensive line."

Muldoon will tell you himself his international career amounted to no more than being an occasional tackle bag at Irish sessions, before the inevitable return west of a Thursday to line out for his province.

There was once a time he nearly gave it all up; he had nearly decided to ditch Connacht until persuaded to wait until the Christmas 2008 visit of Kidney's Munster to the Sportsground. Connacht won the fixture for the first time in 22 years.

Kidney would never leave Ireland either - a move to Newport was scuppered by personal circumstances - but as he sees it, better late than never.

"It's different. We're still playing in Reading, which is lovely but it's like Ulster playing in Newry or Munster playing in Charleville. The move to Brentford next season is a real carrot for us to have Premiership rugby. There are a lot of exiles around there.

"It's a multi-cultural team now (the club houses 12 different nationalities), those days of being totally Irish are gone. It's a bit like the provinces now in Ireland, they aren't all home-grown as before.

"It's fascinating for me. All the different cultures. It's about respecting where people come from. And players have different ideas of how the game should be played, so it's gelling all that together.

"I was lucky enough to have worked in the early days when we used to struggle to get the Garryowen and Shannon lads into the same gyms!

"But rugby is the same in any language. They're good lads and we're all pulling in the same direction. That's all you want."

His vast experience famously created the conditions which helped to pull the Munster and Leinster dressing-rooms closer together before winning that seminal Slam.

Muldoon is only beginning the same journey to discover his holistic and professional worth; his sole assumption is that he needed to do it away from the bosom of his home place.

Win or lose, he might not still not know if he was good enough because the locals would have always regarded him as a legend.

"It broke the emotional attachment I had with Connacht. I had to get out of my comfort zone. When I came here, the guys looked at me and wondered what I've done. So you have to earn that respect.

"Now that I have left, I know it will stand to me. You're starting from scratch and that is not a bad thing.

"There aren't many jobs in Ireland and it's difficult. The provinces have been so successful and if you want to come through the pathway it might take you 10 to 12 years. So it's tough to hang on that long. So a lot of us have to go to pastures new."

In England alone, from McCall at Saracens to David Humphreys at Gloucester and Girvan Dempsey, an assistant at Bath, the Irish coaching tentacles are far-reaching. Kidney, who has his former assistant Les Kiss helping, can see why young Irish coaches must leave.

"You wouldn't have to travel far to see one of us! They're all doing good jobs over here. It's a great learning experience for a few of them.

"Paul O'Connell had that when he went to Stade Francais. ROG, others too. It was a leap for John but I'd expect him to have a good long career in it. He's a good fella.

"And sure there's a few Connacht lads there as well, so it might seem like a home from home."

Indeed, Muldoon sizes up Bristol city as an English version of Galway; his family have settled well and next year he will step up to become forwards coach for a club that aims, at the very least, to be playing Champions Cup rugby. "I'll do a crash course I suppose," he smiles. "I can see our progress like Connacht. Everyone is receptive to Pat. Players have freedom but also responsibilities. It's very much a carbon copy of what happened in Connacht."

They are fancied to win tomorrow; Paddy Jackson continues to slowly revive a career in Irish colours while Ian Madigan is again absent for Bristol; a summer exit may loom.

"Declan has them well-oiled," says Muldoon. "That's no surprise."

"It's a Cup game for us," shoots back the wily Kidney. "They need the points more than us. You know yourself. The usual guff!"

Everything and nothing. Just another two Irishmen going about their work in the big smoke.

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