Age 51 (20 October 1959)
Birthplace Ballincollig, Cty Cork
Coaching history Dolphin, Munster, Leinster, Ireland A
Record as Ireland coach
P29 W19 L9 D1
Be it school, provincial or national level, Declan Kidney has triumphed. Now to do the same at this year’s World Cup…
He is one of the most famous faces in Ireland, thrust into the limelight thanks to his extraordinary ability to coach rugby teams to victory. From schools cups to the most coveted club and international trophies in the northern hemisphere, his teams have won them all, but despite being part of so many celebrations, Declan Kidney prefers to remain a private man.
His successes with Munster and Ireland haven’t turned this fellow from County Cork into a media personality. He is often described as inscrutable, an enigma. He is undoubtedly a talented tactician but also has a reputation as being off-the-wall, dubbed by Ireland legend Keith Wood “a very weird, strange and wonderful man”.
Kidney is certainly modest, playing down his own role in his teams’ triumphs. As one of his protégés, Munster skipper Paul O’Connell, says: “He gets his satisfaction from seeing a group of guys he’s worked with winning and achieving. He doesn’t want anything else. Not many people know him well and that’s probably a credit to him. It’s important the coach doesn’t put himself up there as the be-all and end-all.”
So, if Kidney is not given to blowing his own trumpet, we need others to reveal the secrets of his success. How does he bring the best out of players? He is not dictatorial. He acts more as a facilitator, creating the right environment for players and assistant coaches to flourish. His attention to detail is phenomenal and he has an instinct for saying and doing the right thing at the right time.
“Deccie has grown up with a lot of us,” says Jerry Flannery, hooker in Ireland’s Grand Slam and both Munster’s Heineken Cup wins. “He knows how people are feeling. He treats players like human beings and creates an atmosphere in which fellas believe in themselves, trust in each other and enjoy it.
“He’s always doing little things which you only notice in retrospect. He sets challenges for you. Before the Gloucester quarter-final (in 2008) he told us only 8% of away teams won at Kingsholm. Coming into the Saracens match it was, ‘Lads, do you know Munster have never beaten an English side in a semi-final?’ You think back and say, ‘Geez, what he said made a really big difference’.”
Educated at Presentation Brothers College, Cork, Kidney went on to teach maths at the same school for a decade – but coaching was clearly his forte. By the age of 19 he was already coaching schools rugby and he notched up five Munster Junior Cup wins with PBC, then took them to three successive Senior Cups in the early Nineties. He also guided Ireland Schools to
a Triple Crown in 1993.
His next step on the coaching ladder saw him steer Dolphin from the lower reaches of AIL Division Two to Division One and in 1997 he became co-coach of Munster, stepping up to head coach a year later. In that same year his Ireland U19 side – featuring Brian O’Driscoll and Donncha O’Callaghan – won the 34-team Junior World Cup.
There have been a few fallow spells in his career. His stint as Ireland assistant coach under Eddie O’Sullivan lasted less than two years, ending after RWC 2003. In the summer of 2004 he joined – and left – Newport Gwent Dragons to take charge of Leinster. But there were rumours he was not universally popular at the Dublin province and a year later he returned to Munster.
His first season back was a fairytale as Munster beat Biarritz in the 2006 Heineken Cup final. They repeated the feat two years later and Kidney then got the top coaching job in Ireland. He was the obvious replacement when O’Sullivan stepped down.
“Declan has the CV to match the criteria for any international coach. He ticks all the boxes,” said O’Driscoll at the time. “He knows how to get the best out of his players and his coaches. If he does that with Ireland hopefully we can get back to the heights we hit 18 months ago.”
Almost immediately O’Driscoll was proved right, as Ireland won nine of Kidney’s first ten games in charge and lifted a Grand Slam in 2009. The transformation in Ireland’s performances from the 2008 Six Nations to the 2009 event was astonishing as Kidney nurtured young stars like Jamie Heaslip and Stephen Ferris and revitalised other players, notably Tommy Bowe.
Since the Grand Slam, Ireland have been inconsistent. They blew hot and cold in this year’s Six Nations before thumping England 24-8 in the last game. So, after taking Ireland from eighth to fourth in the world rankings, can Kidney make them World Cup contenders?
After failing to reach the quarter-finals at France 2007, their minimum target must be to get out of the group, but with Australia and Italy also in Pool C, that is not a given. However, maybe Kidney will exploit the fact that Ireland come into this World Cup with little fanfare.
“Kidney has always known that Irish teams are woeful favourites,” says Wood. “The tag has sat uncomfortably on both teams and supporters. Winners in sport have always strutted their stuff but Kidney has taken a different tack. His self-deprecating, even bumbling, protestations that Munster were lucky to be there at all took pressure off his side for years and confounded opponents into thinking they only had to turn up to win.”
Perhaps that tactic will work with Ireland just as well as it did with Munster.
This article appeared in Part 1 of our Rugby World Cup Supplement.
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