Following the recent announcement of Declan Kidney as the new Ireland Head Coach our Supporters Club correspondent Adrian O’Farrell takes a look at his coaching style.
It’s funny how when a decision is made it suddenly seems like the most obvious thing in the world. Perhaps some people just needed a reminder of just how good Declan Kidney’s record is. Since his appointment as Ireland Head Coach, the evidence has been all the more clearly laid out and it is astonishing just how good that record is.
In some ways, it is the early stuff that is the most impressive. Five Munster Junior Cup wins in six years with Pres Cork, followed by three Senior Cup wins in a row in the early 1990s; a Triple Crown with the Irish Schools, followed by a 27-25 defeat away to a New Zealand Schools team replete with future All Blacks; topped off with the IRB Under 19 World Cup success. He then took a Dolphin team that barely escaped relegation the previous season to promotion to Division One of the All Ireland League.
Of course, he’s gone to much greater achievements in the grown-up world of professional rugby. But essentially, his greatest gifts are visible even in his earliest coaching achievements.
Much has been written about his ‘quasi-psychologist’ style of man management. Kidney tends to remind me of Liam Griffin, the former Wexford hurling manager who led them to a memorable All Ireland win in 1996. Both take a 360 degree view of their sport’s place in the firmament. As a player, you’re not just representing yourself or your team. You’re representing your people and your place. You’re not doing it for yourself, but for those that support you and those whose hopes you represent. The similarity that Wexford team had with the Munster rugby ethic is no accident.
The human condition is a curious one. One would think we would be most motivated by personal achievement in a selfish sense. It’s all about me getting what I want – which in a sporting perspective is about winning for our own sake. But I’ve always found that the fear of losing is much greater. Sports psychologists will tell you that you must be positive at all times. And this is true when you are standing over the kick to win the match. Focus on the process and not on the result. However, this applies to a different moment.
I believe that before one dons one’s game armour, it is well worthwhile spending time considering the gap between winning and losing; the difference between the two dressing rooms; what each means to those you soldier with; beyond that, to those whose hopes you have been entrusted with, who have spent cash and emotion in large amounts. This ‘gap analysis’, so to speak, stands to those who have thought about it in detail in advance.
Both Liam Griffin and Declan Kidney understand this intuitively. While we may be somewhat cavalier where only our own hopes are on the line, most of us dare not so casually toss away the hopes of those we love. It is the equivalent of the hero in the action-movie declaring that he doesn’t care a jot for his own fate, before the criminal mastermind produces his masterstroke – the wife and kids suspended over the piranha pool.
One imagines that Kidney would share Griffin’s sense of astonishment when he sees kids and adults decked out in Manchester United or Liverpool gear to watch a match in the pub. Many of these people have never even seen ‘their’ team in the flesh and their support is grounded in nothing more compelling than an arbitrary selection at the age of seven, or a big brother or father’s preference. Yet, they will tell of their lifelong commitment to the cause.
Compare that to the GAA parish or the local rugby club, where you support or play for your friends, your classmates, your townsmen, your ‘people’. It’s ‘Us’ against ‘Them’ – whoever they may be. This is something that Kidney has very successfully tapped into at all levels and the emotions that come with this. With Munster this came very naturally to him as there is a natural ethos there. And after all, it’s his home. However, even with those that come in from outside, they quickly gain acceptance as ‘one of us’ and it gives them an intense desire not to let ‘us’ down and repay the faith. Once you have that level of community within a squad, it is easier to address such issues as character and commitment without having to pitch them in such stark terms.
Kidney’s is an holistic approach that considers players as not just players, but people. And not just people, but people who play the game as they live their lives – in a context. I cannot think of a better coach for Ronan O’Gara to come home to after the harrowing experience that was the Rugby World Cup. And it cannot be coincidence that he recovered his form so quickly under Kidney’s wing.
It could be fairly said that Declan Kidney has the greatest emotional intelligence of any Irish coach. When you’re managing a team of coaches and players as well the emotional investment of a nation, it’s probably the most important skill one could have.
Just as Griffin needed to convince Wexford men that they could compete at the top echelon of their game, so Kidney’s greatest achievement has been convincing Munster players that they could compete against Europe’s greatest club teams. It is fitting in many ways that the last match under his Munster tenure is against Toulouse, for it was after being slaughtered by the aristocratic Frenchmen in 1997 by 60-19 that Munster realised how far they had to travel. With Kidney’s infusion of belief in the Irish as a sporting nation, their first faltering steps became giant strides in fairly short order. What a launchpad for his international career it would be to bookend his Munster career with a landmark statement of how correct he was.