Declan Kidney could not suppress a laugh at the final question as he was unveiled as London Irish’s new technical director, a few hours after Nick Kennedy’s shock resignation as the Exiles’ director of rugby.
Could he ever see himself back at Munster one day? “Ha ha — I’m just delighted to be back in the game. It’s like a fresh start and I’m really looking forward to this challenge.”
The 58-year-old Cork man has certainly got a big task on his hands at London Irish, who look doomed to relegation as they sit 12 points adrift at the bottom of England’s Premiership, with just five games to go. Even the club’s most optimistic supporters realise they are unlikely to survive, and defeat to Gloucester this weekend will send them a step closer to returning to the Championship, from whence they were promoted last summer.
The surprise resignation yesterday of Kennedy, a club legend, only adds to the sense of disorder, with Brendan Venter having left two weeks ago when Kidney was appointed to replace him as technical director.
Kidney believes there is a bright future for the club, who have a strong tradition of producing young talent, an area in which he has always thrived. He pointed out he was a successful coach of the Irish schools side before leading the U19s to the FIRA World Cup in 1998, which led to his appointment as Munster head coach, with whom he reached two Heineken Cup finals.
A second stint was even more successful, as he won the trophy twice, in 2006 and 2008, before taking over as Ireland coach and leading them to the 2009 Grand Slam, a feat not repeated until Joe Schmidt’s side did it last week.
Kidney is full of praise for Schmidt’s work. “Joe is an excellent coach and has done a really good job with the team,” he said.
“I think they’ve been fantastic, the best team by far in this year’s competition. We fully deserved to get the win and I’m delighted for them. They’ve worked hard and they’ve been knocking on the door to get the Grand Slam but they’ve had a fantastic record over the last couple of years.
“There is great credit due to all the academy systems around the country that there are so many good players coming through, and Joe has a style of play that encourages those guys to come through and fill those roles.”
Ireland have age on their side, too, which augurs well with the World Cup in Japan 18 months away. Kidney says Schmidt’s men should now forget about their triumph at Twickenham and instead start thinking ahead to the summer tour of Australia.
“The age profile of the team is very good but I wouldn’t be putting pressure on them in any way. This is a one-off Six Nations and they will know better than anyone else it starts all over again in June when they are down in Australia — three massive Tests ahead of them. Michael Cheika will know a lot of our lads and the system they have come from so it is another massive series for Ireland.”
Kidney knows there are fine margins between success and failure, pointing to Johnny Sexton’s last-gasp goal against France. “If Johnny’s drop-goal doesn’t go over, then France are playing for the championship in the last game. I think all the international teams look at it as a standalone competition. There is enough wisdom to say it doesn’t stand for anything next time round.
“What we need to do is to enjoy the moment as a nation — to win the Grand Slam is a fantastic achievement. For some of those boys they have won their third championship. The Grand Slam is icing on the cake but the competition itself is the championship, and to have that wrapped up with a game to spare has not been done too often, so there is massive credit due to everybody involved on and off the pitch.”
Kidney was as proud as any Irishman watching this year’s triumph. “The joy of international football is that every game is like a cup final and you try and stay involved for as long as you can. So for someone like Rory Best to captain the side, with all the bangs and knocks he has had, and the highs and lows he has had in rugby, to come through and to have the team as gelled as he has there is massive credit to Rory and his leadership team around him. And Joe has facilitated for that to happen.”
Kidney is delighted to be reunited with Les Kiss, the Australian who was his defence coach with Ireland and will be head coach at the Exiles. Kiss left Ulster in January.
Kidney said: “Sometimes the stars don’t align but in this particular case one bit of misfortune turns out to be another’s good fortune. Les was really unlucky with injuries at Ulster at the time and they parted ways. I just gave him a shout to say ‘what would you think?’ and here we are. The players will really like him. He brings a lot of energy and is respected worldwide. We’re just so lucky to have him here and I’m delighted to be working with him again.”
Kidney has spent the past three years working at home on Leeside as director of sport at University College Cork, a role that will now finish with his full-time job in London. He admits he missed the professional game: “I did, yeah. I’ve always enjoyed coaching sides. I’ve coached for the last 32 out of the last 37 years. I was out of it for different reasons and I was really blessed that London Irish gave me the opportunity to get back into it and I’m looking forward to it.”
He says he will try to help the national side by promoting young Irish talent through the ranks at Exiles, though not on the level of many years ago. “When it was set up there was a massive Irish influence around the club but it has become more diverse now. If we can be of any assistance at all we would only be too delighted — but the IRFU have enough of a task in looking after the four provinces without having to look after us in any way.
“If we can help out, Les and myself will be only too happy to do that. The IRFU have a good setup, good players coming through. We are not part of that plan and it would be wrong of us to think we are owed anything. We just have to measure up to be the best club we can be in the English system, and that’s what we will do.”
Kidney has rarely spoken about his feelings on leaving the Ireland job in 2013 after a poor run of results, but he is not bitter. “You are just disappointed that results went the way they did, for the team’s sake. It is a massive honour to be involved at internationals at whatever level. I was lucky enough to work with the U19s, the schools, so you are disappointed to be out of that bubble but only because you enjoy it so much when you were there.”
Does he wish he’d had a chance to stay on longer? “With every coach, it is no different to every player. You know it is going to end at some stage but I enjoyed every minute of it when I was in it.”
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