Declan Kidney’s London Irish embark on life in the Championship tonight with the former Munster and Ireland boss having assembled a squad he hopes is capable of not just returning to the Premiership but staying there.
Kidney reunited with his 2009 Grand Slam-winning defence coach Les Kiss at the tail end of last season as London Irish were fighting a losing battle to stay in the English top flight.
Installed by director of rugby Kidney as head coach, Kiss is back on the training ground after falling victim to UIster’s horrendous campaign when he lost his job at Ravenhill last January and while the pair could not rescue the Exiles last season they were determined to put the foundations in place to become a more permanent Premiership fixture should they successfully negotiate a promotion this season.
The first step on the long road begins in west London when Irish visit big-spending Ealing Trailfinders and while Kidney accepts it will be a tough journey to secure an instant return to the top, he has been determined to add quality to the squad he hopes can do the job.
Experienced players have climbed aboard, such as former Springbok prop Pat Cilliers from Leicester Tigers, fly-half Stephen Myler from Northampton and Samoan back rower TJ Ioane from Sale Sharks. While Kidney has also been enthused by the number of players who chose to remain with the club from last season despite the drop in status. They have bought into the Corkman’s vision.
“That was part of it when we sat down to discuss what we would do,” Kidney said.
We have to try and do two things, get out of a very tough league and there’s no guarantee of that because a lot of clubs have smelled an opportunity and invested a lot of money in putting together good squads, including Ealing, who we play in our first match.
“And at the same time, if you do go up, there’s no point going up and not having some bit of a base so you’re trying to do better than just survive when you’re up there. So that’s why, in fairness to the club and the owners, we said that if we need a bit of investment early on that we would try and do that.
“They’ve backed that up and we’ve got in a couple of players and we’ll be looking for a few more going forward.
“But we’re very happy with what we have now.”
Experience among the new signings was key but character to go with it was vital to the double Heineken Cup-winning former Munster head coach, no matter the background.
“Good people are inclined to make good players and each one of the lads that have come into us, we see them as a good person first and on top of that they have some experience also. We have an academy system too that has a good record of bringing guys through but we want them to have something to look up to as well, role models.”
Not all of the players relegated with Irish last season chose to stay and fight for promotion but Kidney was delighted with those who did remain and the character shown even as the ship was sinking last spring.
“I think that was a benefit to both Les and myself to see what things were like in the last five or six games of last season, to see how the club operated under pressure. That’s when you get a true feel for the values that are in the club and there were a lot more good things than there were poor things. It was just a case of trying to accentuate the positives, to work on those and then bring in a few additions.
A lot of the lads here are good players who are probably better than they understand that they are. It’s our job to get them to understand they can be better than they feel they are.
Kidney is clearly happy to be at London Irish, with its professional set-up operating side by side with a now separate amateur club 120 years young at the same Sunbury training facility.
“You wouldn’t want to be changing that. That’s your ideal model for a club.
I was delighted to get the opportunity to get back into the game. I’d been out of it for a few years so just to get an opportunity to get back into it, “I’ve always loved coaching.
Bringing Kiss in alongside him, he added, was “the icing on the cake”.
“One person’s loss is another person’s gain so I certainly gained in that one. We know one another and can get things done without having to talk it through… we think differently but we have a good, healthy respect for where most of it is coming from.
“It’s worked for us in the past so let’s see what we can muster with the lads that are there now.
“You know my philosophy at this stage, we live in an age where there’s a lot spoken about the sport from the coaching side but it comes down to the players in the end.”