Saturday 22 September 2018

Kidney out of Exile

Declan Kidney
Declan Kidney

Conor O'Sullivan

Declan Kidney remains a beacon of calmness despite the mounting anxieties surrounding the future of London Irish.

The former Ireland head coach, who has a Grand Slam and two Heineken Cups on his CV, is facing a different task from his previous jobs following his return to professional rugby.

Kidney and former Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss - the pair reunited from their Ireland tenure - are attempting to pull off a great escape from Aviva Premiership relegation with only two games remaining.

However, the 58-year-old is relishing arguably the biggest challenge of his coaching career.

"I'm delighted to be back coaching," Kidney said. "We live in a day and age where the role of coaches is somewhat overstated. We've just tried to add value to what was here already and see if we can add on a small bit to help the team get games across the line."

London Irish remain in bottom place on 22 points, nine behind 11th place Worcester, after winning only three league games all season.

The Exiles' 45-5 defeat to reigning champions Exeter yesterday looked to all but seal their fate after a 17th league defeat with only two games remaining.

Kidney's side next face two-time European champions Saracens at their rented home at the Madejski Stadium, followed by a final-day visit to Bath.

A second relegation in three seasons would compound a fall from grace for a club that reached the 2008 Heineken Cup semi-finals and 2009 Premiership final.

Kidney and Kiss were hired last month on three-year contracts as technical consultant and head coach respectively to salvage a season that has seen the team look out of its depth following promotion from the Championship.

Kidney has so far overseen a 33-29 defeat to Gloucester, a 35-5 away victory against Harlequins, before a chastening afternoon against Exeter.

The pair's arrival precipitated the departure of technical director Brendan Venter and director of rugby Nick Kennedy.

"We came in to give a hand and things have transpired the way they have in terms of people leaving the club and I respect everyone's decision to do what they do," Kidney said.

"I've only met Nick on two or three occasions. He had a brilliant career and did a very good job as coach here. I wish he had stayed because it would have made it a bit easier on me, but I think everyone at the club would respect the decision Nick made."

Kidney joined London Irish in a time of severe uncertainty for the 120-year old club. It is currently subject to a takeover by a consortium of Irish business owners, who in January reportedly bid £3.5 million to president and majority shareholder Mick Crossan, who bought the club in 2013.

The Exiles have leased Reading FC's home ground since 2000, although the board remains confident they can return to west London as part of a ground share, with Brentford FC's new stadium set to open in December 2019.

The club owns its 57-acre training ground in Sunbury on the western outskirts of London, which was purchased following the sale of their home ground, The Avenue, which hosted its last Exiles game in 1999.

"All those other factors are out of our control and there's nothing to be gained by going there from our point of view at present. We just need to accumulate as many points as we can between now and the end of the season and see where that leaves us," said Kidney.

The prospect of a franchise system being introduced to English club rugby has threatened London Irish as a professional entity, with a ring-fencing operation said to be favoured by the majority of Premiership clubs, who are losing £30 million per annum collectively on player wages despite the growth in television revenues from UK broadcasters and international subscribers such as NBC.

Furthermore, club owners view the prospect of franchising as a means of expanding the game globally. Chicago-based insurance company Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. will assume sponsorship rights from next season, replacing Aviva after an eight-year partnership. It will ensure annual Premiership fixtures continue to be played on US soil.

"When you're in the coaching and playing side and you're facing top sides, that's enough to focus the mind," Kidney said.

"There's nothing to be gained by thinking about something that's totally out of our control. Everyone said it would take about 20 years for the change to settle in and we're just about at that mark now and there's still changes happening.

"It doesn't surprise me," Kidney added. "It probably has another 10 or 15 years to go on the journey. Professional sports, particularly the top money earners, have made significant structural changes to their leagues and rugby is no different."

Kidney has returned to professional rugby after a five-year hiatus in which he worked as director of sport at University College Cork, following the end of his five-year spell with Ireland in 2013.

"It's been great working with Les (Kiss) again, who is someone I know and trust. We come at the game from slightly different angles so we're always teasing different aspects out, but that's the fun of it. The fact that Les became available was the icing on the cake in terms of myself accepting the appointment."

He is coaching abroad for the second time in his career after a three-month spell with Newport Dragons in 2004 was cut short when he was offered the Leinster head coach job.

"I suppose I can't really compare the players to the previous teams I've managed, but that's the good thing about going into new groups, there's always different chemistries. They're a good bunch of men and they work hard for each other. We just need them to build that belief in themselves.

"London Irish was always the first English club spoken about at home. We need to represent the traditions of London Irish in a good way and if we can get a few Irish players through the system then all the better."

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport