Centre of attention: Michael Kiernan

‘Drop-goal on. Drop-goal taken. Drop-goal good!’ Michael Kiernan is one of only a few people who know what it’s like to get the score to beat England to win the Triple Crown.

Today he’ll be in Twickenham hoping some other Irishman will know the feeling, though knowing it’s a totally different game now .

Last year, shortly before he signed for Racing Metro, Ronan O’Gara was in Barry’s in Douglas on the suburbs of Cork when he spotted an old acquaintance in the same bar. Michael Kiernan was with a couple of friends and soon O’Gara came over to join them, something Kiernan thought showed a nice touch of class. His regard for O’Gara was huge. It still is. At Christmas he made sure he got O’Gara’s latest book and it was something he devoured, just like he had the outhalf’s earlier autobiography from five years ago.

“I found they’re brilliant reads. I can see so many of the things he’s saying are so true. He says when you’re taking a place kick the one thing you’ve got to do is stand tall. You’ve got to face up to that kick with 100% confidence and make sure when you address that ball you’re upright. That fascinates me because it reminds me of what I needed to do myself.”

Kiernan wasn’t a natural place kicker like O’Gara, in that he wasn’t taking or practising them through his childhood and teens. He wasn’t a reluctant place kicker either, more an accidental one. In a November international in 1984 against Australia, Moss Finn went down injured, there was no one else to take the kicks, so Kiernan stepped forward to take them. Hardly anyone thought you could pull it off, going into the Five Nations without an expert place kicker, but by the following spring Ireland had won the Triple Crown.

Kiernan would make a lot of pressure placekicks in that campaign yet that’s not what he’s known for. Friends and others call him Mick The Kick for producing one of the great Where Were You moments in Irish sport. If Kiernan wasn’t there to receive that pass from Michael Bradley against England in Lansdowne, a lot of people wouldn’t have remembered where they were that day.

Ronan O’Gara himself was on a train just outside Lansdowne Road, he and his father having to leave the game 10 minutes early to make the mad dash to get to the 4.50 service back to Cork. O’Gara had just turned eight and was seething that his father had the discipline to drag them away but the one consolation was there was a man with a radio in their carriage packed with other tormented Cork people.

“There was such a hush the only voice you could hear was Jim Sherwin doing the commentary on RTÉ Radio,” O’Gara would recount in his first book. “I’ve seen Michael Kiernan’s drop-winning goal many times on television since but I remember the commentary as if I never saw it: ‘Drop-goal on. Drop-goal taken. Drop-goal good!’ When the kick went over people were roaring and jumping around and my dad half-thought we were going to be derailed.”

It’s funny how 24 years on, history would repeat and reverse itself. Again a Corkman passes to a Corkman, or to be more exact, an old Pres boy passes to another old Pres boy. Drop-goal on. Drop-goal taken. Drop-goal good. Only this time Michael Kiernan found himself the fan. A few weeks after that kick in Cardiff that won the Grand Slam, Kiernan wrote O’Gara a card, of both congratulations and thanks.

There was no reflected glory, no Welcome To The Club salute, in the gesture. He doesn’t think it really matters that he and his team-mates of the 80s may go unrecognised by future generations.

“It’s done. It’s gone. Like, I’m 53 now. There’s loads of people for whom it’s just not on their radar. My young fellas and their buddies sometimes put it up on Google and YouTube and they get a great laugh and kick out of it. ‘Back in the day’ they’d be calling it.

“There’s two ways you can look at it. You can bemoan the fact the days you played are gone or you can be glad that you had them. I’m glad I had them. Would I like to go through them all again? I’d love to. I’d love to be 15 or 18 now and have a career in professional rugby. It would give you all the backup to be as good as you can be. I didn’t have that. But again, I’m grateful for what we had.”

It was a different world back then. The Troubles were raging up north and that had its effects down south. During the week the team’s tight head prop Jimmy McCoy’s day job was an officer with the Royal Ulster Constabulary so whenever he met up at the team hotel the outside of his bedroom would have to be manned by armed Gardaí. Often other Garda officers would take McCoy for a pint. That was the regard they had for him and for what he was doing. Going for a few scoops was something the whole team did. The Saturday week before a game and then, with a fortnight between each Test, the Saturday night after a game.

“The union in their wisdom would put the country-based players up in the Shelbourne (Hotel), 600 metres from Leeson Street which was really asking for trouble,”recalls Donal Lenihan, a contemporary and a friend of Kiernan’s. “And at the centre of it would be Mick. Even when he was playing with Lansdowne and living in Dublin for two years he managed to wrangle himself to stay in the Shelbourne. He was always good for the craic and a song. I remember him being particularly able to do a good version of Rod Stewart’s ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’. But the most annoying attribute he had was being able to be out at night with us and then finish first in all the runs in training next morning.”

Kiernan himself smiles at the memories. How innocent, naive, different, they were. “We could be playing a match in Musgrave Park at 2 that Saturday, get the train or car up to Dublin, then head out that night and then train the following morning. Could you imagine that now? Playing a bruising game on a Saturday and training the following morning? With a few pints sandwiched in between?”

He was fine with that though. He actually got a buzz from it, working the day job with the finance or insurance company he was with at the time until having to report to Dublin again for Thursday lunchtime ahead of a Test match. He was always appreciative of the support and time off his employers gave him, all the while mindful the profile didn’t hurt them either.

Kiernan’s was particularly high. The name alone carried a resonance. Uncle Tom was no Uncle Tom, but rather a godfather of Munster and indeed Irish rugby. His late father Jim was also a selector with Munster and Ireland and was an officer with Dolphin. His maternal uncle Mick Lane played with the Lions. Kiernan doesn’t attribute his sporting success to the Kiernan genes, more the Kiernan environment where there was an ambition and confidence more than an expectation you could play at a high level. He wasn’t a born rugby player that way.

What he was born with was pace. That was developed further in his time training in athletics.

When he was 20 he was national senior champion in the 200 metres. He won silver in the 100m. He even raced for Ireland in a triangular tournament against Denmark and Scotland in the Meadowbank Stadium in Edinburgh, competing in the 4x100m relay against Alan Wells who had won the Olympic gold in Moscow. Imagine a rugby international doing that today.

Even then it couldn’t be sustained. That summer of 1981 Kiernan had been called up to the controversial tour in South Africa (“Did I approve of apartheid? Of course not. But did it cross my mind not to go? No.”) and while being exposed to that altitude meant he was raging fit for the athletic national championships in Santry upon his return, he soon had to choose one sport or the other and rugby was always going to win.

He actually didn’t play in either test in South Africa but the following February, when David Irwin went down with a broken leg in the opening Five Nations game against Wales, Kiernan was thrown in at the deep end. Six weeks later he’d won a Triple Crown.

He has one particular memory of that decisive game against Scotland. In the closing moments with Ireland’s lead in double figures and ‘Molly Malone’ resounding around Lansdowne Road, Ollie Campbell urged some surrounding teammates to savour it. “He told us, ‘This doesn’t happen very often. Take all this in.’ I can still hear it to this day. Yet unless he said it, I wouldn’t have done it.”

In a way though he still didn’t appreciate just what Ireland had done. The country might have been waiting 34 years to win another Triple Crown but he had only been playing for the team for two months. He would appreciate 1985 a lot more.

For Lenihan, he was the key to that success, long before Bradley ever threw that ball to him. “I would describe Mick as a skilful centre, a grumpy winger but above all a consummate footballer. The biggest tribute to him was when Mick Doyle decided for the 1985 Five Nations he was going with Paul Dean at outhalf because of his vision and running ability. He was going with a team based on flair and was going to give them the onus to express themselves. But with Paul at outhalf Ireland had no recognised place kicker. Yet Doyle went to Kiernan to take them knowing once Mick put his mind to something, he had the talent and confidence to do it.”

The rest you know. Kiernan would stand up and stand tall to take them. Something he never practised before he would practise constantly. He wasn’t as accurate that spring as he would be in later campaigns – even in the Triple Crown decider against England he would miss a few chances – but luckily for him Rob Andrews would miss a few too while he would nail a huge one to level the game at 10-10.

The drop goal was something he had envisaged in the days leading up to the game. He even told Keith Crossan that day that he could see it coming. Bradley’s pass though was supposed to be to Paul Dean. Kiernan and Dean were both rookies on that South Africa tour of ’81 and it would be the start of a beautiful relationship, with Kiernan naming his youngest son after his buddy, but he’s not shy to remind Dean he shirked that pass and responsibility that day.

“He went blindside! He basically bailed! But outside me then were (Trevor) Ringland and (Hugo) MacNeill. Trevor wouldn’t have been noted as a great handler of the ball so I went for it. I was right in front of the goal anyway, so I just swung the leg and it went over. It wasn’t the prettiest thing in the world, but as O’Gara says, that doesn’t matter.”

Anyone who saw it can still see him – running back, grinning, clapping his hands gesturing to Crossan that the dream, the plan, had come true. But after that there was still a career to play, a life to be played. There were some frustrations. He thinks back on the inaugural 1987 World Cup. The players were mad for it but the union wasn’t and it showed in the preparation.

“We didn’t play a game for 10 weeks in the lead up to it, in case we got injured. It’s not the IRFU’s fault. They just didn’t have a clue. They didn’t want it anyway. It was a pity because that should have been our crowning glory, to play well at that tournament.”

He wouldn’t get the chance to play in another, with Jim Davidson not naming him on his 43-man squad for the 1991 World Cup. It rankled at the time. Kiernan was only 30.

“I certainly could have got another three or so years out of it. But I had a kid by then and when you’re not training as a pro, other things become more of a distraction. And all of a sudden because you’re hitting 30, almost psychologically you start thinking, have I had enough? I was on the South African tour at 20. That’s 10 years of it.”

That’s why he’s amazed by the longevity of some current players, especially the backs. Especially one particular centre. Brian O’Driscoll. The two men played the same position but again Mick The Kick, for all that Kiernan assuredness, is in awe of the current Irish captain and some of his contemporaries.

“He (O’Driscoll) would definitely be the best I’ve ever seen. He has some little limitations in his game but he’s had the ability and awareness to adapt to them. He can’t make the outside break anymore but that doesn’t really matter because he will ruck anyone out of it; he’ll be like a third forward when it comes to stealing a ball in a ruck. His reading of the game is extraordinary.

Even when the other team has the ball. He’ll read where the tackle needs to be made and he’ll make it. That’s not even of a setplay, that’s even off broken play. His anticipation is incredible. The hits he’s taken and given is incredible. For all his skill he’s as hard as nails. He’s the complete package.”

The professional game fascinates Kiernan. He didn’t look to be a part of it, he never got into coaching outside of helping some of the kids in Pres in taking place kicks but he remains very much a rugby man. He regularly goes to see Dolphin play in the AIL, with his own son James one of their standout players when not studying for his final Law exams in UCC. His other son Paul is captain of the Pres team that play in this month’s Munster Schools Cup, with dad giving the place kickers some help. The pair of them went to the Wales game a fortnight ago, it being Paul’s 18th birthday, and Mick fascinated to see how Joe Schmidt would set his team up.

“We went into the ground an hour early. I love watching the warm-ups, monitoring how switched on they are. I watched Leigh Halfpenny kick for about half an hour. And every single ball he kicked went over the black spot of the crossbar. Perfect. Perfect! He’s probably the best kicker in the world. And how Ireland kept him to one kick at goal during that match was a huge statement. They knew he wasn’t going to miss. So they made sure that he barely got to kick! That fascinates me. There’s nothing like a good game of rugby.”

It’s why he’ll be in Twickenham today, this time with his daughter Alison who now works in London for a law firm. Just what has Schmidt up his sleeve for this one?

“The English pack would be more physical than the Welsh and Scottish pack put together. There’s going to be massive physicality in this game. They probably won’t be able to use the lineout maul to the same effect they had the last day, England are obviously going to target that, so does he still use it? Or does he go with things they haven’t seen yet?”

Mad to see things we may not yet have seen. Hoping for things that we have seen. And that he’s done.

“Drop-goal on ...”


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