The Kieran Shannon Interview: Mick Kearney - ‘You’d have a checklist of up to 100 items’

From counting shower heads to booking Usain Bolt, Mick Kearney’s duties during five years as manager of the Irish rugby team were as varied as they were challenging

Jamie Heaslip shares a joke with Mick Kearney on what was the team manager's last media briefing before stepping down from the role. Picture: Inpho

For the first time in five years he won’t be there, wired up to a Declan Kidney or Joe Schmidt, but as someone who always perceived the job as being more about preventing problems than solving them, Mick Kearney’s hand will still be at play in Murrayfield today.

Last autumn, during Kearney’s final weeks as manager to the Irish senior rugby team, his appointed successor Paul Dean was invited — upon Kearney’s suggestion – into the camp for the full week of the test match against Canada and for some of the build- up to the game against Australia.

It didn’t just afford Dean a chance to meet Schmidt and the players, sit in on their meetings and sit down with Kearney to chat about some of the tasks and challenges that go with the position. Kearney even saw to it that the former Triple Crown winner got something of a dry run, so that any possible baptism of fire would leave him only warmed by the experience, not scalded or overwhelmed.

One of Kearney’s duties under Schmidt had been to take position down by the touchline and oversee the entry and re-entry of players into the game. For the Canada match Dean assumed the role before Kearney stepped back in for one last time against Australia.

“It sounds like a small thing but it’s quite a stressful part of the job. You’re taking instructions from Joe over the microphone, you’re getting guys ready to go on to the pitch, you might be passing on a message to the players.

“On top of that then you’ve got the blood bin and the different rules regarding the HIA (Head Injury Assessment protocol), and you have to be watching the time.

“Then you’ve got guys going down injured when Joe may be about to make a substitution, so you’ve to be ready to grab the card back off the fourth official and give him a different one.

“You’re all the time on high alert. The first time I did it was at international level when Joe came on board, and even after doing it more than 30 times I still felt a fairly high level of anxiety because anything could go wrong. I know Paul found it quite stressful that day. But when he was appointed, I wanted to make sure that he got a good induction into the whole organisation. I know for me it was fairly intimidating at the start.”

That Kearney had both the foresight and the generosity to make the handover at Murrayfield as smooth as possible for Dean and the team is a measure of how he shaped as well as reflected the high-performance environment that he departed last November.

Upon his decision to step down from the position, Joe Schmidt would publicly laud his “experience, reasoning and people skills” and how they “added tremendous value” to the setup.

The team’s performance psychologist consultant, Enda McNulty, offered a similar testimonial in the acknowledgements of his new book, describing Kearney as “one of the most pragmatic and effective mentors I have ever met”, in both business and sport.

And long before Kearney ever encountered him or Schmidt, another close friend, the late Moss Keane, would also sing his praises in the acknowledgements of his book. A few years before Keane’s family would ask Kearney to speak at his removal, the big man would rave about Kearney’s “motivation, encouragement and peace-keeping ability”.

All those talents were required as manager to the senior national team. In a way he was to the team what the Wolf was in Pulp Fiction.

“I’m Winston Wolfe. I solve problems,” Harvey Keitel’s character would pronounce to Jules, Vincent and Jimmy during the Bonny Situation. Only Kearney saw his job as being more about preventing problems, not solving them.

All the same, the problem business was definitely the one that he was in.

“As a team manager you’re spending the entire time trying to make sure that nothing goes wrong. And over the five years a few things did go wrong but very few. I’d look upon a successful week in camp, including the day of a test match, as one when absolutely nothing went wrong. And thankfully we had a lot of weeks like that.

“You’d do it by making sure every box was ticked. That the food was top class and that the hotel was providing everything [nutritionist] Ruth Wood-Martin would have prescribed. If there was any issue with the hotel, I’d tend to sort it out with them directly. You’d have a checklist of up to 100 items and we’d go through every single one of them. ‘Is that done? Is that done?’ You’d repeat that several times throughout the week, especially if you were going abroad. Sometimes you might assume you’ve done it but you can’t. You can’t even be that one or two percent off.” It would be in the smallest, simplest of things, like the team bus being at the Shelbourne at least two hours before they’d depart to the Aviva; that way, if it was 10 minutes later, they knew that they still had plenty of time to get another bus.

Of course, stuff still went wrong; shit happens.

One year in Edinburgh the bus broke down and they had to walk half a kilometre to the dressing room. The 2014 tour of Argentina was a particularly challenging tour.

“They put us in two awful places to play rugby games. We were in soccer stadiums. The dressing rooms were tiny. For the second test there were only 11 showerheads. But you just had to make sure you did the very best with what you could in that situation by letting the players know well in advance, manage their expectation.”

For the 2015 World Cup, Kearney would have been over in the UK eight times in advance of the tournament. The hotels, the off-day expeditions; they would all have been his baby. And the guest speakers. Schmidt would also tend to leave that to Kearney’s discretion and resourcefulness.

For that World Cup he’d bring in Usain Bolt ahead of a warm-up game. Then, between the group games against Italy and France, there was the evening in Celtic Manor when he was able to get Sonia O’Sullivan, AP McCoy, Barry McGuigan, Niall Quinn and Henry Shefflin all into the same room as the team.

“That was one of the best nights we had over the five years. Sonia had postponed her trip back to Australia to come over and join us in Wales. Niall had something else on up the country but managed to come down. Henry flew over from Dublin, while Barry and Tony had both driven from London. When they all arrived, we went into the Ryder Cup room. We had five tables of nine, with a sportsperson at each table, and then every 20 minutes they’d move around, telling stories and chatting away to the next table.”

Rory McIlroy made it down to them the day after the win over France. Again, that’s a favourite memory of Kearney’s.

“When Rory was coming in, he wanted tickets for the Italy game and the France game, so I organised tickets for both. Three days after the France game, I got a phonecall from a representative of his from Dublin, wondering how much Rory owed for the tickets. I was stunned by that. Here’s one of the top sportspeople in the world yet he had the humility to make the effort to get my number, give it to that guy and ring me up to see how much he owed me for the tickets.

“That sums up my experience of sportspeople. I can honestly say in my five years involved with the Irish rugby team there wasn’t one of them I could turn around and say about them, ‘I don’t like that guy.’ I’ve never seen one of them not stop and sign a jersey. I’ve never seen one of them refuse to go to Crumlin Hospital. They’re getting phones stuck in their face morning, noon and night for selfies and it’s difficult for them but they show incredible patience. I think they’re remarkable ambassadors.”

Kearney would invite people from other walks of life in to talk to the team. Keith Barry blew their minds. A few businessmen opened them as well. In his book, Becoming A Lion, Johnny Sexton wrote about how it was a “welcome diversion” to have people such as the head of Google Ireland in to talk about the ruthless industry they were in, where people didn’t have contracts renewed if they were even just 1% off their projected target.

“It’s interesting,” Sexton would write, “to hear about what’s going on in the real world.”

It’s where Kearney has always lived, even when he was in the bubble that was the Irish team. He grew up and worked on the family farm in Dunboyne, Meath, mostly with cattle, but at 25, after a career-ending injury, sustained playing for Lansdowne, he headed to Australia with his wife Eugenie.

Down Under he started coaching rugby and befriended the father of a teammate. Paddy Thompson from Mountmellick was chief executive of Snap Printing and asked Kearney did he want to come on board. Kearney was selling advertising space in a bus station at the time and packed it in to join Thompson in Snap, starting out as an apprentice printer. Within a few years he had worked his way up to centre manager level and was about to move on to head up a branch in Queensland when a plea from the heart intervened.

WHEN IRISH EYES ARE SMILING: Missionvale Care Centre, Port Elizabeth, founder Ethel Normoyle with Ireland team manager Mick Kearney during the 2016 tour to South Africa. Picture: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“My wife, who was the eldest of 12, went to tell her father that we were going to Queensland. He started to cry. He asked would I reconsider. So I did.” In the summer of 1984 he’d return home to set up the Snap franchise. He’s remained in the franchising business ever since. In 2005 he and his business partner Ed Murphy set up Home Instead, the home care service for which he remains board chairman. They currently employ and train 4,000 caregivers.

“It’s an incredible business to be in because older people want to stay in their own home. They actually feel if they leave to go into a nursing home, they’re leaving to die there. Whereas if you keep them at home, the quality of their lives is completely different. By having people call in to them for a few hours a day, three or four days a week, we can keep them at home and keep them independent.”

All the time though sport remained a passion. He’s attended Wimbledon finals,visited Manchester United’s training ground in Carrington, even been over with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Three times now he’s renewed his 10-year tickets in Croke Park, even though he hasn’t seen near enough of his native Meath there the last few times around.

Rugby though was the game he served. He was Lansdowne’s director of rugby during the glory years of the AIL. Then he was club president and chairman until his brother John was co-opted onto the committee. “Once I saw John was coming in as president,” he smiles, “I decided to go, otherwise we’d be blamed for every little thing that could go wrong!”

Around about the time of that decision, he was a mentor to McNulty whose performance consultancy business was in its fledgling years. As is his style, McNulty asked Kearney what his passion and vision within rugby was now? Kearney mentioned serving as a team manager. Within a month the universal law of attraction had kicked in. Leinster CEO Mick Dawson called, asking would he be interested in teaming up with the Leinster U20s.

Soon after that he was involved in a similar capacity with the Irish U20s. Then, when Paul McNaughton stepped down from the senior team post after the 2011 World Cup, Kearney applied for the post. On the eve of the following Six Nations campaign, he was offered the job.

Kearney had never met Declan Kidney before but from the off they clicked. The last two years of Kidney’s reign wouldn’t be as successful or fortuitous as his earlier ones but Kearney got to see why Kidney had won what he had with Munster and Ireland.

“Declan had a great ability to put a team around him and get people to gel. You look at who came into the setup during his time. Les Kiss. Gert Small. Enda. “I think he was desperately unfortunate at the end of his time in Ireland. Sport is very fickle.”

In 2012 he could easily have been the coach of the first Irish team to beat New Zealand; with a few minutes to go it was 19-all, they had a man in the bin and there was a scrum that we felt should have been a penalty to us. “Instead it went the other way, they went downfield and Dan Carter drop-kicked a goal. Against Italy in his last year we were decimated by injuries; Peter O’Mahony ended up playing nearly 60 minutes on the wing.

“If you look at the two championships we won with Joe, we went to Paris and Jean-Marc Doussain missed a penalty on 73 minutes to put them ahead. The following year it all hinged on Jamie Heaslip’s tackle on Stuart Hogg. You look at the England-France game later that day and Nigel Owens could have given a penalty try at the end of that game. The margins are that tight.”

Still, he’s seen up close and personal just how hard Joe Schmidt fights for Ireland to be on the right side of that fine line.

“I think one of the fantastic things Joe has done is giving the players time off. Say the Tuesday after and before a test game, the players will train in the morning, then do a strength session in the early afternoon and then head home. It means a lot of the Leinster guys can be back with their families by 4pm and not have to return to Carton until Wednesday night. It’s a really good break that avoids that kind of cabin fever you’d otherwise have and means when they come back, they’ve freshened up.”

They need all of that energy though, because of how Schmidt pushes them, especially mentally. Most nights in camp, Kearney sees the players head off to their bedrooms by 8.30pm, they’re so wrecked from the day’s demands.

“It literally is about inches with Joe. It’s where you’re standing, what line you’re running. If you’re a little bit off, Joe is going to spot that and pick you up on that. And he’ll give it to you straight. He won’t sugarcoat it. I’ve been in business for over 40 years and I’ve never met anyone who has the level of detail or the work ethic that Joe has. Joe knows more than anybody else because he has studied it.”

That attention to detail showed in Kearney’s last game involved with the squad. Schmidt emphasises the 23-man game and everyone of them was needed to stave off Australia in the Aviva last November. It was the perfect send-off for Kearney; the win, the kind words from Rory Best and Schmidt at the post-match banquet, then that night out with the team and the management.

He’s out of the bubble now; today it’ll be Dean who’ll supervise touchline duties in Murrayfield, steeled from the rehearsal against Canada. Kearney though remains friends with those who are still in that bubble and those who knew just how magical a space it was. Paul O’Connell has just bought a house beside Kearney’s in Lahinch Golf Club. A few weeks before Christmas Kearney and Eugenie stayed with Less Kiss for the Ulster-Clermont game. The following morning they went for a long walk with him and his wife Julie, overlooking Belfast Lough.

Savouring the view and the moment, and still appreciative of the view they once shared inside that bubble.



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