1998-2004 The Early Years
Declan Kidney, maths teacher, graduated from successfully coaching PBC’s rugby team to successfully coaching an Ireland U-19 side that won its World Cup in 1998. He then coached at Munster for around 4 years, a period that was characterised by ‘near misses’ in Heineken finals. However Munster undoubtedly became a stronger side under him, developing into a credible pretender in European competition.
Kidney was then appointed as Ireland assistant coach – this didn’t work out, it’s easy to imagine that Eddie O’Sullivan bristled at the appointment, not being a man who brooked challenge, and it wasn’t a surprise when Kidney exited in 2004.
With no Irish jobs available at the time, he went to the Dragons – however within 3 months the Leinster job came up, and he upped sticks in pre-season to go back to Ireland. Frankly this episode reflects better on the remarkable good will shown by Dragons in releasing him, than on Kidney himself.
His tenure at Leinster was undistinguished – exit from the HEC with a comprehensive home defeat in the quarter-final against Leicester, 3rd place finish in the league, well off the pace set by the Ospreys and Munster. There were widespread rumours of discontent within the squad – this was the season Jennings and Cullen left for Leicester, and there were some fears of a wider squad break-up – not to mention among the fans, and their opinion of him didn’t change for the better when he jumped ship at the end of the season to go back to Munster. Brian O’Driscoll in his book ‘Life in the Centre’ had little favourable to say aboput him, and said that he doesn’t feel that he learned anything from Kidney’s time in charge.
2005-2009 – The Glory Years
On to Munster then, and this is where his reputation was forged. He led Munster to HEC victories in 2006 (his first season back) and 2008, playing a distinctively hard-nosed, forward-oriented, territorial game. This was Munster’s most successful period, when they were in their pomp, providing the backbone of the Ireland team. And while in retrospect it seems that there was an air of inevitability about Munster’s cup victories, there were no gimmes – Kidney sent out formidable teams, that played formidable rugby.
It was this period that projected Kidney into the Ireland job, which he took in 2008 after Eddie O’Sullivan’s protracted fall from grace, and in his first 6 Nations, Ireland won a Grand Slam. Two Heineken Cups and a Grand Slam in a period of four seasons – winning streaks don’t come much better than that!
Let’s pause then in March 2009, and scratch at the surface of these glory years.
Looking Under the Bonnet at Munster
While the results in the HEC speak for themselves – notwithstanding a relatively unsuccessful year in the 2006/07 season – it’s interesting to look more widely at what was going on at Munster. Finishes of 3rd, 6th, and 3rd in the Magners League suggest that domestic success was sacrificed for HEC success. This isn’t controversial, it was widely commented upon, and certainly paid dividends. However it suggests a certain lack of squad depth compared with the Leinster team of recent years, which have combined HEC success with domestic dominance – this isn’t necessarily a criticism, not many teams can match the current Leinster group for strength in depth, and even Leinster have been prone to slip up in the play-off finals, even if they have dominated the league.
A comparison of the HEC-winning teams in 2006 and 2008 shows that from 1-10 there were just 2 changes; Foley was replaced by Quinlan (who had been on the bench in 2006) and TOL displaced Stringer. In 2005 Kidney inherited a very settled squad, with key players largely in their mid- to late-20s, battle-hardened and stinging from previous close misses in the HEC.
Assuming that players enter the provincial academy aged 18 or 19, and spend 2-3 years there, then during Kidney’s second term at Munster, the players who would have started or passed through the academy during his time there would now be between 24 and 29. Looking through the current Munster squad, there is a remarkable dearth of local players in this age category – the only player who has developed into a contender for the senior team and Ireland is Keith Earls. Besides him, excluding players who were in the 2008 intake or later, i.e. after Kidney had left (Archer, Foley, Holland, O’Donnell, Williams), and those who came in under MacGahan from the AIL (Dineen, Henry, Cotter, Cusack), the only academy players who went on to get full contracts were Denis Hurley and Tom Gleeson (the latter who has just been released, after making just a handful of appearances for the senior side). By any standards, this is an exceptionally poor return.
So while leading Munster to victory in the Heineken Cup twice in three years was no mean feat, Kidney inherited a strong and settled squad in 2005 following several years of hard graft from Gaffney & Co. Under Kidney, it was very much a case of evolution, not revolution, in terms of personnel and tactics. The squad remained strong and settled – to a fault, with squad development and the academy taking very much a back seat, as essentially the same players from 1-10 provided the fulcrum of Munster’s success during the 3 years.
In fairness to the much-maligned Tony McGahan, he in turn inherited a strong squad – but one further along the age curve – along with a badly misfiring academy system. It was only under him that the alarm bells were belatedly rung, and changes made – and there is now some evidence of a turnaround with the emergence of the likes of Zebo, O’Mahony, O’Callaghan, Barnes, O’Dea et al. McGahan may not have been the perfect head coach for Munster, but in retrospect Kidney’s exit was very well-timed (for him) – leaving Munster at their peak, and leaving McGahan to embark on the tricky task of refreshing an ageing squad, beset by player retirements on the one hand and a dearth of well-prepared young blood on the other.
After the Slam
So on to Ireland – where, as with Munster, Kidney inherited a strong and settled squad, albeit one which had undergone disastrous, demoralising campaigns in the most recent 6 Nations and the World Cup. He appointed a fresh-looking group of coaches, notably Gert Smal and Les Kiss, and is credited with lancing the boil of certain inter-provincial, or inter-personal, rivalries or ill-feeling which had built up under the previous regime. Whatever he did, it worked – some of the rugby wasn’t vintage, but Ireland’s name is on top of the 2009 table, unbeaten, in the history books.
In the November series, Ireland got out of jail against Australia, putting in a very indifferent performance before nicking a draw at the death, but recovered with a hard-fought victory in the fog against South Africa to finish the calendar year unbeaten. However November 2009 is where the upward trajectory flattens, and in 2010, it turns down.
Since the start of 2010 Ireland have lost more than 50% of their games, and have finished 2nd, 3rd and 3rd in successive 6 Nations campaigns, with just 8 victories out of 15 matches – with 5 of those victories against Italy or Scotland. Ireland said goodbye to Croke Park in 2010 with a hugely disappointing home defeat against Scotland, and came perilously close to recording their first 6 Nations loss to Italy in 2011. The 2012 World Cup ended ingloriously with Warren Gatland masterminding a fairly comfortable Wales victory in the quarters (as indeed he has done on the last 3 occasions Ireland have played Wales). The World Cup victory against Australia ended a run of 4 straight losses against Tri-Nation opposition through 2010. And all of this to the background of ongoing success at club level in both the domestic and European competition, with Leinster at the forefront – Irish sides have won the last 5 domestic leagues (albeit Ospreys have picked Leinster’s pocket twice in the play-off final) and 4 of the last 5 Heineken Cups, including the most recent all-Ireland affair.
Whence the malaise?
The Man With The Plan?
Declan Kidney has known considerable success as a coach, notably in his second stint at Munster and his first year in charge of Ireland – there is no question of that. What are the common threads? In both cases, he essentially inherited a strong and stable squad. In both cases, the changes that were implemented on his watch were incremental, rather than radical. This is not to say that he has had nothing to do – in both cases, the teams were coming off the back of a long period of near-misses, and turned the corner on his watch.
However he has never, during the course of his career, successfully developed, or substantially refreshed, a squad. At Munster, development of squad options and young players during his time there was completely off the agenda, with the focus very much on the core 20 players. Many of the problems which Munster Rugby are still trying to resolve, for example, with the academy’s under-performance, have their genesis during his time there.
The 2009 Grand Slam was a big milestone for Ireland – this is where a talented generation belonged, at the top table in the Northern Hemisphere. However it was clear even at the time that, with the core of the team hitting their 30s, and with the introduction of the ELVs in 2009, Ireland had to prepare for significant changes in gameplan and personnel – under the oversight of a head coach who had no track record in delivering either.
And the road has been rocky. Generally speaking, there is wide consensus among fans and pundits about the majority of each Irish selection, but there has been a succession of perplexing calls – for example, the reluctance to involve Mike Ross, even as it seemed clear that Hayes was waning dramatically and Buckley was signally failing to deliver. There has equally been a reluctance to move on from the ageing, predominantly Munster, warhorses – with an out of sorts O’Callaghan the most recent beneficiary, at the expense of in-form, athletic options like Tuohy and McCarthy. O’Gara has loomed large, with at least a perception that his aggressive self-promotion has cowed the coaches at times, and again in spite of no apparent recent form, he finds himself in New Zealand while the likes of Madigan sits at home. And finally there is at least a perception that a Munster shirt helps in tight calls – players like Murray, O’Mahony and Zebo have parachuted into Ireland squads over the heads of ostensibly more qualified, and more in-form, players from other provinces.
Equally the gameplan has not moved on – or to the extent it has moved on, it has done so fitfully, and not necessarily coherently. In fact it has been frequently difficult to tell what kind of game Ireland have been trying to play – but to the extent it has been possible to discern, Ireland’s tactics over the last couple of years appears to be not dissimilar to the tactics applied so successfully by Munster pre-ELV. That is to say a conservative, territorial game, with highly structured forward play characterised by commitment of large numbers to rucks, close-in pick and go carries, and a relatively high percentage of possession kicked. This may have been appropriate when Munster provided the spine of the Ireland side – but in a period when Leinster players are the bedrock of the Ireland side, and they have gone from strength to strength playing a higher-tempo game characterised by the generation of fast ball, clockwork deployment of screens and trailers, and offloads, it has felt like Ireland have been trying to do the wrong things, with the wrong players.
Perhaps then Kidney was the man to take Ireland to a Grand Slam in 2009, but not the man to take the team through the next stages of development. The decision to extend his contract just prior to a World Cup – a move which had backfired so disastrously just 4 years prior – looks increasingly foolhardy. Never ones for dramatic change, the IRFU are unlikely to enforce any change before Kidney’s contract expiry at the end of next season. The quiescent Irish press has remained largely supportive, although the increasingly apparent disparity between club and international performance has caused some journalists to ask pointed questions, in differing degrees of explicitness.
So where does that leave Ireland, on the eve of a June series in New Zealand? Expectations are so low that almost anything other than 3 consecutive humiliations will count as ‘success’ – in fact a win, or even two, against a more or less experimental New Zealand side, are not beyond Ireland’s compass, and this would certainly be greeted as glorious redemption by the media. However, even if this were to occur, it would have to be followed up by a very credible showing at the next 6 Nations for Kidney to get a further extension. As things stand, the IRFU are in all likelihood actively thinking about replacements.
Barring, then, an unlikely rebound in form, it leaves Ireland with something of a lame duck head coach, for another full season – after three full seasons of, at best, stagnation. Looking back to the Grand Slam in 2009, one wonders just what kind of stepping stone that may potentially have been, had Ireland been overseen by a progressive, creative head coach. In a country where rugby has to struggle for attention with Gaelic games and soccer, two or three Grand Slams and a successful World Cup campaign might have placed Irish rugby front and centre in the public consciousness. It is hard to look back over the past three years without feeling that a lot of opportunities have been missed, and it emphasises the importance of getting the next appointment right – as Tony McGahan would no doubt confirm, picking up the pieces after Declan Kidney is no easy task..