Declan Kidney interview 3 Feb 2009

February 4, 2009

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: “I’m not always calm. You can ask some of the lads about that. I’ve let my emotions run away with me. But that’s not doing anyone any good.”
THE NEW IRELAND RUGBY COACH ISN’T A MAN TO SEEK THE LIMELIGHT; FOR HIM IT’S ALL ABOUT
THE PLAYERS.
MICHAEL MOYNIHAN SPOKE TO DECLAN KIDNEY ABOUT LIFE
AT THE TOP OF THE COACHING TREE

DECLAN KIDNEY isn’t long setting out his stall. Over a cup of tea in a Cork hotel, he stresses what’s important when it comes to coaching: “It’s all about the team and the players. They’re the ones doing all the work.”

Still, people are curious about the new Ireland coach. The man who made his name steering Munster to glory in Europe now holds the top job in Irish rugby, but that doesn’t mean he’s lost the run of
himself. He still prepares properly: take the games he attends as a spectator.

“Before the November series, myself and Les (Kiss) were at games, preparing notes as to what we might say if we were going
into dressing-rooms at half-time — so you’re still used to it. You don’t want to be experimenting.

“But at half-time there’s no point in trying to flood fellas with information. They’ve broken their melt in the first half, so how much information can they take in? It needs to be fairly precise, and sometimes it’s as simple as ‘keep at what you’re doing’.”

Kidney can isolate a couple of crucial events which were vital in terms of the experience he gained as a coach.

“The two games I remember are Munster against Castres, the year after we’d been to the final in Twickenham. We were something like 21-3 down at half-time. We’d made two mistakes and they’d scored two tries, and it was a matter of recognising that.

“On the law of averages the opposition would make two mistakes and we had to capitalise on that, and the ploy was to stay with it.

“To me that was a huge match. In the Twickenham season we got on a roll but the following season we could have
capitulated, and we didn’t.

“Then you had the Clermont game last season. They were flying, but we had turned the ball over so much in the first 20 minutes, and in the 10 minutes before half-time, when we did hang onto the ball, we made huge inroads.

“So our feeling was, ‘well, we can’t do anything about the first 20 minutes, but let’s hang onto the ball and see how much we can claw back’. And the players did that.”

Kidney’s bow at the end of last year’s Heineken Cup final wasn’t the dramatic farewell it appeared to be (“My family was in a certain section, I saw them, it was a bit of a family slag”), but there’s been plenty of emotion along the way. He had some practice when it came to leaving Munster behind.

“I’d a bit of experience of that. In 2002 myself and Niallo (Donovan) knew it was our last game, we were going to be
involved with Ireland. It sounds cold, but you have to remove yourself from that.

“The fact that it (the 2008 Heineken Cup final) was my last game . . . it was about an hour later in the dressing-room that that creeped in. I’d kept it away
before that.

“That might sound cold. I’d hate to say it’s a skill. It’s a necessity. You have to do it. It’s a facet of life – how do paramedics keep their cool at accidents, for instance? Because there’s a job to be done. In my case I’ve to keep an eye on the game, see if substitutions need to be made and talk at half-time.

“I’m not always calm. You can ask some of the lads about that. I’ve let my emotions run away with me. But that’s not doing anyone any good.”

What does players good is balance, a key word in the Kidney lexicon.

He expands on the advantages Irish players can exploit.

“You can give people too much information, so it’s a case of getting the balance right so they’re organised, but not so organised they’re thinking ‘what should I do next’ rather than playing what’s in front of them.

“As an Irish team we play best when we’re doing that. Genetically we’re not as big as some sides we play, though we work hard in the gym.

“But then a lot of our fellas come from a GAA background which gives them a vision other countries’ players don’t have, and I’d hate to take that away from them; you can coach that out of them.

“Niall Ronan’s try against Clermont, which was a hugely important score, that was a Gaelic try. He used all his
footballing instincts for it.

“A lot of Irish players have played
soccer, Gaelic football, hurling, and I want to encourage them to let those skills come out — as well as lads who have played nothing but rugby. If we’re not as big genetically then we must use other skills.

“You’ve to marry the old — our
madness, which did us alright for 100 years — and better organisation, without ruling out the madness. And also having the bit of crack. Irish teams are better when they’re having a bit of crack.”

The perfect example of mixing skills is Denis Leamy, who frequently takes kick-offs as though he were playing in Semple Stadium rather than Lansdowne Road.

“You’d encourage him to say his percentage of dropping the ball falls if he turns sideways as it could go backwards,” says Kidney. “Then again, the one or two he takes over his head, the momentum that gives the team . . . there was an
incident in that Clermont game when he just got the ball and ran, and that brought us into the game.

“The advantage of that is that it’s
spontaneous. Nowadays, with analysis, everything is pre-planned, so something like that can help. There’s an advantage in soccer in that you don’t announce your team until an hour before kick-off. If you had that in rugby you’d open the game up a bit.”

Announcing or picking your team is probably the biggest choice that a coach faces, of course. Kidney is clear-eyed on the calls he has to make.

“You make the best choices, what you feel is the best. If you feel you’ll get it right all the time you’re not dealing with reality. Nobody makes the right decision all the time.

“I was asked to do the job based on
decisions I’ve made before and I’ll continue to make the best decisions I can, in the hope that’ll ensure the players play to the best of their ability. That’s the coach’s role. If you can do that you’re successful.”

It must be frustrating, though, when a decision doesn’t come off and the critics don’t have all the information that the coach had when he made the decision.

“Any time you have a job that you like — that it’s a privilege to do — there’ll still be another side to the job. That’s true of everybody’s job.

“A lot of it is okay, you’d think ‘on the basis of what they see that’s a fair opinion, but there’s more to it than that’. It’s when it’s over the top, somebody taking a view on the basis they know everything . . . but that’s life.”

“Criticism is part and parcel of it. The question is where does it cross respect.”

The games back in November attracted some criticism. He accepts the win over Argentina wasn’t entertaining but rejects the notion that encounter was the be-all and end-all of the autumn series.

“I thought they were all big games. Just being Irish, the anthem’s being played . . . I wouldn’t underestimate that. It’s a big thing. We were so disappointed with the previous week (against New Zealand), when we got to the Argentina game we wanted to do better, but some teams are very difficult to play against.

“You have to play a certain way to get a result, because if you go all flowery you can get beaten. I know that was an awful game as such, but to the real rugby person who knows what has to be done, it wasn’t so bad. The forwards fronted up to the
Argentina pack and the backs played it where the forwards needed it to be played.

“We won it with the score we won it by, and we were only semi-pleased. We won it knowing we could play better, so you’re
into ‘potential’. You judge potential by the scores on the board, and that’s what we’ll be judged on.

“There was a sense of relief but relief would mean we weren’t looking forward to it, going into it. We wanted to win because we knew it could have been important with the luck of the draw, but some of the older lads were also saying they wanted to win one of these games against a team ranked above us.”

SINCE then the players have scattered back to provinces and clubs. He’s looking forward to seeing them again, particularly as there’s a week to prepare before the first outing.

“They’ve played four Heineken Cup games to qualify. We’re lucky, they’ve all done well — Ulster have come on a ton, Connacht are doing well, and then you’ve Munster and Leinster — so they’ve played a lot of rugby.

“It’s different to soccer, it’s physical
contact, so we’ll add on to what we’ve done. But it’s helpful to meet up the week you don’t actually have a game, because it gives you time to stand back and look at what’s happening, to air views and so on.”

That doesn’t mean you’re divorced from the emotion, of course. The coach readily admits that the occasion had an impact in his first outing as boss.

“The one in Thomond Park, I had to tell myself to cop myself on. The one against Canada caught me — I was
looking around to see if there were any cameras on me, but I managed to get back in. … but you have to stay
composed.”

True to form, the coach brings the conversation back once more to his
players. “It’s a strange word,
professionalism, isn’t it? … We have some lads involved with teams in Ireland who aren’t paid, but they’re brilliant.

“The players’ thirst for knowledge, to improve, borders on the obsessive… The players are always looking for the edge — tactically, technically, every way.”

No better man to help them do just that.

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