PERCEPTIONS, like a rock-solid scrum, are hard to shift.
It took Sean Cronin almost a decade and 68 caps before an Ireland coach turned to him as his country’s starting hooker in a Six Nations game. The pity for the Leinster player was that his big shot, against Italy last year in Rome, should have gone so badly.
Cronin had already become the most used replacement in Six Nations history as far back as 2016. Try as he might he was never deemed to be the right fit for that No.2 jersey, which he wore in just 10 of his 72 test appearances.
His is just an outsized version of a common tale. Dan Tuohy spoke this week about his frustrations with life on the periphery of the national team and even the squad at large and many is the man who has felt that.
Ian Madigan, for instance, earned all 12 of his Six Nations caps off the bench.
It’s a decent-sized club and Dave Kilcoyne has surely spent longer than he would care to admit paying his annual subs. Eight of the loosehead’s 39 caps have been cameo affairs, from the one official minute recorded against Scotland last month to the 40 banked in Cardiff last September.
Only one of his starts have come in the Six Nations. As with Cronin, it was against the Azzurri in 2019 but Kilcoyne remains ideally positioned to double up on that total on Saturday week should the next game, against France in Paris, escape the spread of the coronavirus.
“Dave has been playing well for a long time,” said his Munster and Ireland teammate Peter O’Mahony. “He’s very dynamic, a dynamic scrummager, dynamic ball carrier. He gives a lot of energy to the team when he’s on his day.
“And he’s playing well for a long time. He’s been playing well for us down in Munster, he’s made some great impacts when he’s come on when Cian’s gone off over the past few weeks. He’s more than capable of stepping up.” It would be a fitting reward for both his patience and his form.
Kilcoyne made his debut in November of 2012 with three minutes against the Springboks in Dublin and, while he has featured for his country every season since, there have been campaigns when he has lived on a subsistence diet.
Most obvious was the disappointment of missing out on a place in Joe Schmidt’s 2015 World Cup squad, after which he made a point of telling his brother Alan that, come hell or high water, he would be on the plane to Japan four years later.
It was no easy thing.
When Schmidt named the travelling party for the successful tour of Australia in the summer of 2018, just 15 months out from the last World Cup, Healy’s and Jack McGrath’s names were on the list but not Kilcoyne’s.
He did join up with the squad in an unofficial capacity before the third test when Healy was an injury doubt and he himself happened to be travelling around the country. But it was clear even that recently that his place in the firmament was far from fixed.
What followed was a “massive” pre-season.
Now in his thirties, Kilcoyne was at a point in his life where he understood his body and how it worked much more than ever before. He zeroed in on small percentage gains he could make on his S&C and nutrition and it paid off.
As O’Mahony said, his form with Munster was such that it propelled him past a faltering McGrath, who made a move from Leinster to Ulster to try and reignite his own career. Come Japan he was making a persuasive pitch to start ahead of Healy.
So much so in fact that Healy, prior to the team’s World Cup opener against Scotland in Yokohama, pondered aloud whether it was a question of when rather than if before his Munster colleague would claim the No.1 jersey off his back.
That he never did at the World Cup remains a bone of contention for some.
Ireland’s ills were varied last year but the failure to give more air time to men who were in flying form, like Kilcoyne or Andrew Conway, hasn’t aged well and is still a live issue in the Andy Farrell era.
“That competition right throughout the squad pushes everyone and that’s what the squad needs if we are to keep progressing in this competition,” said Kilcoyne after his run off the bench against the Scots in the Far East. “The more lads you have champing at the bit and giving coaches headaches the better for Irish rugby.”
It’s up to him now to leave Farrell nursing a whopper after Paris.