Not bad for the SON OF A PIRATE
Five schools junior cups Three schools senior cups Schools Triple Crown Under 19 World Cup Two Heineken Cups IRB Coach of Year Triple Crown First Grand Slam since 1948
Munster and Ireland stars would eventually term them ‘Kidneyisms’ – the messages that Declan Kidney sent their way the week before major games. In this extract from the first biography of Ireland’s most successful rugby coach of all time, it is revealed how a young Declan Kidney was up to the same psychological tricks as he led Ireland’s Under 19s to World Cup glory in 1998.
THE MAKING OF a ‘very weird, strange and wonderful man’, as once announced by Irish legend and barnstorming hooker Keith Wood, was plain sailing in the beginning. He was the son of a Pirate.
Joe Kidney was born in Cobh, and worked in the Cork Dockyard that eventually became known locally as Verolme when it passed in 1957 into the hands of Dutch shipping magnet, Cornelius Verolme. Thirtythree ships were built in the dockyard and 1,500 people, including Joe, worked there until the ship building industry went under in the early 1980s. A Munster senior schools cup winner, as his son would also be, Joe was a former captain of Cobh Pirates.
His father, and not some esteemed team boss or coach in Ireland or England, was the greatest influence on Declan Kidney’s career. His father was also a former winger with Dolphin, and father and son, with Declan listening intently to Joe’s analysis of games, averaged three matches together every weekend in the rugby season. From seven or eight years of age, Declan played in his own match on a Saturday morning, and the pair would watch the senior team that afternoon. Sunday morning they found time to view the thirds match. Sunday afternoon the seconds match.
A lot of games for young eyes to soak up; a lot of words dropped into young ears, and so it was hardly surprising that Declan Kidney considered himself fit and ready to coach his first team at 19 years of age. He had lost a Munster senior schools final with Pres Cork by that time, and rebounded to win one. He was playing with UCC. He was playing out-half. In his playing days at Dolphin he was considered a canny No10 with a good enough boot, but the Munster juniors was as high as he scaled the representative ladder. ‘Looking back on it now,’ he considered in his early days as Munster coach, ‘I was probably overly harsh on myself and over analytical in what I could do. But I loved it.’
His highlights? He singled out the schools cup final, and mentioned, ‘as for the club one? I suppose any time I made the team’. He had brains on the field, however. Lots of good thoughts about the game! What was the point in waiting to become an old man with a whistle? None. After graduating from college he returned to his alma mater to coach. He also returned to teach maths and offer career advice to students. He was pointed in the direction of the Under 13s. In the 1980s, Pres Cork lifted five junior cups in six years. Three senior cups, one after the other, followed smartly in the 1990s. Kidney coached all eight victories. He oversaw an Irish Schools Triple Crown in 1993. Brought the Irish Under 19s to France in 1998 for a World Cup that had not attracted the attention of some of game’s superpowers. There were no New Zealand, Australian or English teams in the way. ‘Why can’t we win it lads?’ Kidney declared. And Ireland proceeded to defeat the United States, before sidestepping South Africa after fighting back from a 17-0 deficit and earning a draw. The South Africans nicked the penalty shootout 4-3, but they still got kicked out for using an ineligible player.
A decade later, Irish team captain Shane Moore, who partnered Brian O’Driscoll in the centre, was asked by one journalist to explain Kidney’s secret, and in his explanation he returned to the team dressing room before that same game against the South Africans. ‘He was all, “Sure I suppose we may as well go home, we probably won’t have a hope here,” remembered Moore. ‘And you’re going, “What do you mean?” It was maybe a reverse psychology. He’d make you think and talk. Because all of a sudden you found yourself focusing on what you needed to do.’
Moore could not recall the coach shouting, or even raising his voice during the whole tournament, even when everyone trooped back into the dressing room at half-time, to consider a 17-0 deficit. ‘He was still absolutely calm and logical. “Why
not hang onto the ball and see what you can do? Take it to them a little more, and see what they have.”’ Moore and his young men proceeded to do exactly that.
‘I can never remember us having any fear of losing in that tournament,’ the team captain continued. ‘The glass was always half full. Declan always stressed the squad, so much so you felt you were going on the field with 30 people, not 15.’
In the semi-final Argentina were taken out 18-3, and in the final it was a rout against the home nation. An impeccable 18-0 scoreline. There was shock and wild celebration in clinching a World Cup, but in his memoir, The Test, Brian O’Driscoll spent time recalling something that happened distant from any of those games.
O’Driscoll explained that Kidney was pumped up for the team’s first match against the United States and, at an early training session, he pulled the future Irish legend to one side
I can never remember us having any fear of losing in that tournament... Declan always stressed the squad, you felt you were going on the field with 30 people, not 15
and told him to stop spitting in the team huddle as he (Kidney) was talking. O’Driscoll was not even aware that he was spitting. ‘Declan gets pumped up for our first match, against the US,’ wrote O’Driscoll. ‘Please don’t spit into the middle of it,’ O’Driscoll was told. O’Driscoll apologised. Kidney told him that if he had to spit… spit out, not in! In his next 16 years in an Irish jersey, or Lions jersey, or any jersey for that matter, the most decorated player in this country’s history never again spat in a team huddle. He also had a good long look at anyone who did. It was O’Driscoll’s first insight into a man he would be working with and against over the next two decades. He witnessed how Declan Kidney liked to grasp at things, real or imaginary, a possible slight, an errant insult, in order to give his team even the most minimal of psychological advantages. For instance, the day before the final in Les Sept Deniers in Toulouse, he asked the Irish lads to take a closer look at their transport.
‘Have you noticed how the quality of our team bus is getting worse and worse?’ he asked them.
Kidney suggested that the Irish team was being treated as second best. Tourists, slumdogs even, packed into a bus that had seen better days. ‘The three things that I try to do as a coach are to enjoy myself, to help players I am working with to improve, and to win. But not necessarily in that order.’ (December 18, 1999) ‘One of the things I’m glad I did this year was get one of those special trains up and down to Dublin for one of the international matches. It gave me a feel for what the Irish rugby supporters are about, which might sound like a small fella from Cork making a grandiose statement. But I think it reinforced what Irish rugby supporters are looking for in their teams. They want them to be honest and be competitive. Ulster did that last year and if Ulster hadn’t won the European Cup I still think most of their supporters would have been happy with the way they played. They gave everything that their supporters wanted, and then it became a bit of an avalanche when they actually reached the final and won it. And that’s what we’re trying to do. I don’t expect us to win. I don’t expect us to lose either. But once we give it our best shot, then it will take a good team to beat us, and if we are beaten we have at least made sure that it is a very good team that beats us.’ (December 18, 1999) ‘I am not that important at all, or a coach isn’t that important at all. You can just facilitate what they want to do. If they want to do it? Ninety-nine per cent of the work comes from themselves. The coach doesn’t win the matches. Somebody once asked me what my ambition is in coaching and I suppose my ambition is to be lucky enough to work
with players who have ambition.’ (May 6, 2000) ‘I think that’s a word (underachieved) that has been bandied about alright but who is anybody to say what anybody else does with their lives? Sometimes in this country we give teams different tags, [but] I haven’t seen any players not try their best. And once every player tries their best that’s all you can ask of them.’ (August 4, 2004) ‘You don’t want a fella living in fear that if he goes out on the pitch and makes one mistake that the other guy is in. It’s not fair on him to do that. We’re all different, with our upside and downsides. It’s about learning to respect people and what they bring. We’re dealing with human beings, so there’s no exact science to it. But there aren’t many walks of life where everybody gives everything they have to what they’re doing, and when you’re coaching in sport, you’re privileged to see people doing that. And if the players are giving everything, you have to give them a little bit in return.’ (February 5, 2010) ‘I know what I can bring to it. I know what I brought to it over the years, I know that I’ve been in holes before like this and I know how to get out of them, but I think now is the time to sit back and reflect and let’s take a look at things. In terms of doom and gloom, and there’ll be a lot of that, in a strange way over the coming year we’ll benefit from what we’ve gone through here (Six Nations Championship 2013) with the fellas coming through, and that’s what we must remember.’ (March 18, 2013) If you want to make God laugh, tell him what you’re doing tomorrow. (Many days, many years)
The wise words from ‘The Master’ of Irish rugby down through the years
GOB: Declan Kidney sorted out Brian O’Driscoll’s problem with spitting
The Master: A Biography of Declan Kidney’ is published by Hero Books and is available in all good book shops, price €20
GLORY DAYS: Main photo, Declan Kidney; from top, Paddy Wallace, Donncha O’Callaghan, Kidney and Brian O’Driscoll celebrate the Slam; working a drill with Johne Murphy