Ireland's renaissance in green fields in the Celtic League, in Europe and in the Six Nations is due in no small measure to the addition of Declan Kidney to the body politic of rugby in the Emerald Isle. Unlike a gallstone, he has travelled a long way in a short time, although he would be the last man to say he had journeyed well.
"The role of a coach is overstated," he said. "I don't do a great deal. All I can do is help facilitate what the players want to do. I can only talk to them and get them to understand they have the right to believe in themselves. I honestly believe I can't actually do anything else."
The players say differently and Ireland's performance against Wales in Dublin last week suggests that the new management team of Eddie O'Sullivan, late of the American Eagles, with Kidney, the Munster mastermind, as his assistant, could work well even if they are not yet the closest of friends. What was apparent last Sunday is that the Irish tactics were spot on.
When Ireland prevented England from taking the Grand Slam at Lansdowne Road last autumn, O'Sullivan was the No 2 to Warren Gatland. Gatland's finest moment was soon followed by the P45 – exit Gatland, enter O'Sullivan and Kidney.
The six-try rout of Wales has already identified the swift rematch with England at Twickenham on Saturday as a key to the outcome of the campaign. "There will be no need to motivate anybody after our last result at Twickenham," Kidney said. He was referring to England's 50 points the season before last.
"This will be a huge test. England looked very comfortable against Scotland and they have such strength in depth. We only have four professional teams, 120 contracted players, but we've got a reasonably good crop."
A bumper crop by the looks of it. They were without Keith Wood, Eric Miller, Malcolm O'Kelly and Shane Horgan for the visit of Wales and still drove the Welsh into the Liffey. Wood will not be ready to face England but O'Kelly could be. As for the other two, even if fit they will be lucky to regain their places. The back row of David Wallace, Anthony Foley and Simon Easterby had a field day, as did Geordan Murphy who scored two tries. Kidney has a stake in looking after the backs and the inclusion of Murphy, described by the Leicester coach Dean Richards as the George Best of rugby, gives an already dangerous threequarter line an extra edge.
Low key and softly spoken, Kidney had a cv that matched his profile. A one-time stand-off for Dolphin who did not make a great splash, he coached a schools team before graduating to Irish Schools. He won the second division with Dolphin and in 1997 was asked to assist the incoming Munster coach Andy Leslie. "Just before the season began I was told Leslie wasn't coming and asked would I coach them? We had six full-time players and trained at 7am and 7pm. In between I had a full school day."
A teacher who had also trained in career guidance, Kidney had the chance to act on his own counsel when Munster asked him to become the province's first full-time paid coach. "I was scared," he admitted. "I was working with players who were wondering where I was coming from." He was coming, softly, softly, from left field.
In 1998-99, his first full season, Munster were undone by Perpignan in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup and at Colomiers in the quarter-final. Winning in France is hard but Kidney and Munster were learning fast. The following season they exacted retribution in Colomiers and defeated Saracens twice before beating Stade Français in the quarters and Toulouse in the semi-final in Bordeaux. The odds on Munster reaching the final had been 66-1. Northampton took the cup but such has been Munster's progress that their name is synonymous with Heineken.
This season they are semi-finalists for a third time and in April will play Castres in France. The players say that Europe is the ideal stepping stone to international rugby and Kidney could argue the same applies to a coach. But his new role with Ireland presented him with a dilemma.
Ideally he would have liked to have done both jobs but he was told the workload made that impossible. At the end of the season he will have to leave Munster and concentrate on the national cause. He will not, though, want to change his philosophy. "The people I work with are men first and it is very much second that they are players. I try to enjoy myself, I try to help the players improve and I try to win. That is the order of my priorities."
At Thomond Park in Limerick, a plaque marks Munster's win over the 1978 All Blacks. The achievement has recently been celebrated by a West End play, Alone It Stands. As Ireland have never beaten New Zealand, it still does, so Kidney has to respond to a higher calling.Reuse content