The Kieran Shannon Interview: Denis Leamy - 'The emotional stuff has petered out because we don’t need it anymore’

Denis Leamy was part of Tipp's backroom in the 2016 All-Ireland final win over Kilkenny. Picture: Inpho.

Denis Leamy has history with England. A first international try in the Triple Crown-winning match in Twickenham in 2006, his 50th cap when Ireland foiled their 2011 Grand Slam dream, a year before he had to retire at just 30 through injury.

These days England mostly affects him by how Brexit could impact upon the family beef farm, but the coach and the fan in him will still watch today’s game closely.

Sometimes when Denis Leamy ambles across the road from the house where he and Gráinne and the three kids live, over to coach on the field of Cashel RFC, he thinks about how he first fell in love with the place and the game.

Though it was love at first carry, it was not his first love. Hurling was. At the time, the Irish rugby team only knew losing, whereas the Tipperary hurlers were well acquainted with winning, with Pat Fox who ran and owned a bar in town the hero on numerous of their greatest triumphs in Munster and Croke Park.

But Leamy’s younger brothers had decided it to give this rugby a go, just like their father had long before them, and when he accompanied them down to the field one night, Denis’s instinct to partake overrode his natural shyness and so he decided give it a rattle himself.

“Straight away,” he says, “I took to it.”

In hurling, not every line had the telepathy of a Fox, Bonnar, and English. Rugby demanded it. Shoulder to shoulder, you had no choice but to answer your team’s call.

“Ever since the start I’ve always felt that when you’re physically exerting yourself as much as you have to in our sport and you’re depending so much on each other, it builds a camaraderie that is very real and very tangible and totally unique.

The whole thing doesn’t work if John Hayes doesn’t lock the scrum or Marcus Horan doesn’t do his part of the deal because that way the backrow can’t function. If something breaks down in the middle cog, then everyone suffers on the back off it. You rely on your teammates in a way that you just don’t in other sports — and they’re relying on you.

In his time in red and green, he’d revel in that responsibility. In Ronan O’Gara’s second book, Unguarded, there’s a four-page description of the famous 41 phases to beat Northampton in 2011. O’Gara references all 14 teammates but no-one as often as Leamy.

“Leams gets the ball to Tomás [O’Leary].”

“Leams, great carry.” “Leams shows up again.” “Leams, brilliant.” “Leams, great clearout.” And finally, “Beautiful pass off his left hand” for the assist for O’Gara’s dropgoal. Nine times Leamy is namechecked when no-one else gets more than four. For that score they all had to rely on one another — but on no one more often than him.

And so these days that’s one of the things he teaches the young men of the town and its neighbouring college, along with what the game itself teaches them — without teamwork, it just doesn’t work.

Every weekday he’ll go into his alma mater Rockwell College where his brother Kevin is now head of rugby and take each team for a session per week, with an eye to helping them to more Munster Senior Cups like the one they last won in 2015.

As well as that, he’s the head coach of Cashel. Over the last 20 years, he estimates, the club has won seven promotions, and now they’re on course for an eighth, currently residing in second place in Division 2A of the AIL with nine wins from their first 11 games.

Before teaming up with them, he coached Clonmel to a first ever Munster Junior Cup triumph, followed by three consecutive league titles at that grade. You’d think from a track record like that his transition from playing to coaching was seamless but he’ll wince and shake his head at such a theory. No way, he insists.

“I was guilty when I started out of taking for granted that players would understand exactly what I was trying to say. I’ve learned over the last few years that clarity is hugely important. Keep it very simple, very direct, and very short. And if something doesn’t work the first time or second time, that’s fine — you’ll get there eventually. Whereas starting out when something would break down, I’d get frustrated.

“Your true development and understanding of coaching comes when you start to think like a coach. For a few years I was thinking like a player. Now I think like a coach.”

And when he does, he comes to appreciate all the more the various coaches that he encountered along the way.

“‘By 2004 there were more guys in Munster who were ready to make a step up. You could see it in the way they trained, strong characters like Denis Leamy, Stephen Keogh, Trevor Hogan, and Jerry Flannery. Leamy was aggressive, athletic, hungry…. Exactly the kind of competitive young guy we needed coming through.”

Paul O’Connell, The Battle (2016)

Although Paul O’Connell remembers Leamy making a favourable early impression upon him, Leamy himself can recall when his attitude left something to be desired for another key architect in the Munster and Ireland rugby revolution.

After touring Australia for six weeks in 2000 with the Irish schoolboys team, Leamy decided to throw in his chips with six or seven of the rest that squad and join the UCC academy that autumn.

It would be quite the rugby education, playing against grizzled packs in D2 of the AIL and coaches like Pat Murray, Brian Hyland, and especially Finbarr Dennehy challenging him to keep his composure and to make 15 carries the next day instead of just the five from the day before.

But Declan Kidney was particularly keen on his academic education. Leamy had signed up to take a course in recreation and leisure management out in CIT, but after he failed to attend a day of lectures out there, opting instead for another sort of recreation and leisure, he got a call from the then Munster head coach.

I was up in Dublin, training with the Irish colleges, when the phone rang. He started off nice and slow, but I could feel he was revving up to something. ‘Were you in college yesterday?’ I told him, no, that I had flunked ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you’re f**king undisciplined on the pitch and you’re f**king sloppy and undisciplined off the pitch. How long is this going to continue?’

"And then he gave more of a rollicking. Exactly what I said I don’t remember, only at one stage I had to put the phone away from my ear, he was going that mental.

“That was the first time I saw that side to him, and to be honest, it scared me. But he was always looking out for what was best for us. He was very mindful that there could be too much boredom in rugby, he was very keen that all the lads were doing something. It’s maybe not appreciated enough, what a huge imprint Declan had on the Irish psyche and the way that Irish teams should go about their business.”

He’s now able to recognise with pride and wonder how Irish rugby has evolved. It cannot be underestimated, he says, the influence of foreign coaches, some whom he didn’t work with directly — such as Matt Williams and Michael Cheika — and others that he did — from Kiwi Hogan Chapman with his expansive style at Rockwell, then with Munster, Alan Gaffney and Tony McGahan — before culminating in the best of the lot, Schmidt.

“Not only did they bring the Irish skillset to a level where it’s now, right up there with the best in the world, but they’ve changed the Irish mindset.

“When I was a very young player, some of the speeches in the dressing room were 10-minute rallies. Gaillimh [Mick Galwey] would get up and make a speech that would have you in tears. Paulie [O’Connell] could make a brilliant speech. Braveheart stuff. But when it came to the actual process and the skillset and execution, we were probably lacking.

“All that emotional stuff, I think that’s petered out now because we don’t need it anymore. I mean, look at Tadhg Furlong. No disrespect to other locks we’ve had, but what a footballer he is at tighthead — the hands, the footwork. Right across, from 1 to 35 on the Irish squad, you have guys who have so much to their game. And you have to credit the influence of those outside coaches in helping that come to be.”

Some of the native backroom staff helped with that progression as well. For someone who in his early years struggled to keep his head and emotions in check, Leamy would become hugely task-focused, in no small part because of his collaboration with international team performance analyst Mervyn Murphy.

“Mervyn is a rugby scientist. Working with him I got the best sort of rugby PhD you could get. Basically we’d look at three things — carry, tackle, and ruck. And yeah, you want to have big numbers but you want to have an effect as well. You might make a tackle — but what kind of tackle was it? Did you drive your opponent back five yards? Did he drive you back five yards? Was it a soft late tackle where there was an offload?

“When you carried, did you carry and just hit the deck? Or did you carry and drive your legs and make five metres in a congested area? Did you get the ball away in an offload? He’d challenge you. ‘Could you have gone for another five yards there, Denis?’

“It gave me a very clear message so that the next day in training I would be working on my carries and though the first voice in my head would be telling me to go down, you’d then go, ‘No, fight a little more, pump your legs a little more, wriggle your arms, soften things up a little bit. Just to get another inch or two.

“Even when I’d be back in Munster doing my own video analysis, I knew what good looked like. What average looked like. And I knew what poor looked like.”

From that, he’d get to know what winning would look like. Ahead of the 2006 Triple Crown decider in Twickenham, he and Murphy had identified that Steve Thompson tended to throw the ball over the back of the lineout. Leamy gambled, went early off the throw, got his fingertips to it and touched down for a decisive try. (“When I look back on it all, beating England, in Twickenham, for the Triple Crown is up there with anything else. You’d take massive pride in that.”)

A couple of months later he’d score the opening try in the seismic Munster-Leinster semi-final in Lansdowne Road. Two years later he’d score a try in Cardiff to win a second Heineken Cup for Munster. O’Connell reckons they’d have won it again in 2010 if Leamy hadn’t done his knee for the season in the closing minutes of a sensational performance and win away in Perpignan.

And he’d know happiness and camaraderie, off the pitch as well. When he looks back on his time living in Cork and his kinship with the likes of O’Gara and Donncha, Frankie Sheahan, Mick O’Driscoll and Anthony Horgan and Denis Fogarty, he can’t help but think of their Wednesday Matinee Cinema Club. That day, after training in the morning, they’d be off for the day, so they’d head to the Cineplex in Douglas. “You wouldn’t get away with it now,” he smiles.

All of us with our massive buckets of popcorn and bag of Maltesers, and Frankie passing around the jellies.

Sadly, the Wednesday Matinee Cinema Club had to disband prematurely. Within a year of winning his 50th cap against England and a PRO12 for Munster, he had to retire with a hip injury. He was just 30.

“I’ve chatted with recently-retired friends and it was all fairly negative for a while in Munster because some of them appeared to be struggling. Now fellas… are loving it. Leams is the happiest of the lot. ‘It’s a great life out there.’ This is good to hear.”

Ronan O’Gara, Unguarded: My Life in Rugby (2013)

He won’t shy away from it or deny it — rugby giving up on him before he was ready to give up on it shook him to his core.

“It’s a massive change from where you were. Chalk and cheese — and some. You’re living this regimental lifestyle, earning pretty good money, playing in front of huge crowds. Then when you have to leave the game there’s a lot of things you have to get straight, in your head. There’s the financial thing. There’s where you now live. There’s what you now do.

“Someone said to me you never get over retirement, you never get over not playing anymore, you just learn to deal with it. And he’s right to a point. I worked in the Munster academy for a few months and one of the other lads said to me, ‘How are you coping? Are you able to cheer for them yet?! Are you to clap when they score?!’ I said, yeah, I could, but he said, ‘I was retired five years before I could cheer for [my] national team again.’ And he wasn’t a bitter man by any means. I didn’t feel the same way but I could still relate.”

Cashel’s schedule, along with the arrival of the twins last autumn, means it’s hard to fit in Munster games this season, but anytime he does go to Thomond, like last year’s European Cup quarter-final, he’ll admit there’s a load of mixed emotions. He was happy to fill in there for an ad last autumn welcoming Joey Carbery to the Munster family but he’ll stop short of following in the tradition of former players calling into the dressing room on game day to wish them the best. He just wouldn’t be comfortable.

Instead he’s more comfortable coaching out in Cashel and Rockwell. The college has recently provided three players to the current Munster academy and another to Connacht’s, while a rake of other graduates now play with him for Cashel. Ideally he’d like to be coaching professionally full-time but with three kids under two, moving abroad isn’t an option at the moment and as a fellow coach in Limerick said to him the other day, it’s hard for an AIL coach to break into the four provinces.

He was also part of the backroom of the Tipperary senior hurling All-Ireland winning team of 2016, acting as a sounding board and a pair of fresh eyes for players and management alike. It was a privilege, he says.

“I’d have come across it in rugby too, these top players who’d have doubts but within an hour or two, would have the chest back out. It was great to see the vulnerable side of these guys as well, for them to open up to me, and then to see how resilient they were. I still don’t think they get enough credit for all the challenges they overcame in 2016.”

He’d finish up just after the first kids came long, and before they’d wake him up, there were the cows to attend to. The day job is helping out on the family beef farm, though it isn’t full-time either.

I’ve always loved it, being around cattle, being out in the fresh air. I would always hope to have some involvement in the land, big or small, but with Brexit, it’s a very scary time.

"Bills need to be paid and families to be reared. I know farmers get a bad rep for always being the poor mouth but it’s genuinely getting to the point where it’s going to be hard to get beef because the margin isn’t in it for guys.”

For now though, he’ll stick with it; in a way the farm is the glue keeping his family of five siblings together. And he’ll stick with the coaching, helping the next generation be even better than the one he is proud and privileged to have been part of.

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