Declan Kidney’s Rotund Shadow
Declan Kidney is basically George Smiley, firstly. Old Smiley has returned to prominence over the last year as a result of Tomas Alfredson’s cinematic reprise of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Gary Oldman plays him a little on the reptilian side compared to Alec Guinness’ ‘Declan Kidney in a British Warm’ portrayal from the BBC series of the late 1970s, so it mightn’t leap out at you if you’ve neither read the book nor seen the Guinness version. A highpoint in broadcasting.
Quite the tangent, but there you go. The reason it comes up is that in some of the early prints of Tinker Tailor, there’s a funny little sketch of Smiley on the inside cover that reminds me of Kidney. Just like Smiley was a long way from the public’s idea of a spy, Kidney is also pretty atypical of a pro rugby coach, a polite little unknowable gnome who has built success upon success. Make no mistake about it though [what are “words forever linked to Tony Ward”, Alex? ], Kidney is a ruthless schemer and über-canny operator behind the curtain. There are very few people with whom he’ll share counsel – maybe there’s none, no-one talks about what it’s like to work with him – and the Irish rugby public have very little idea what he’s really thinking or even how he thinks.
Leaving The Circus/Limerick Junction
Anyway, Kidney departed Munster in fine style, winning two Heineken Cups in three years in his second spell at the provincial rudder. Having first left in the aftermath of the final loss to Leicester in 2002, his interim posts probably served to teach him a few things about himself. First there was the ultimately unworkable tenure under Eddie O’Sullivan with the national team; then there was the short-lived dalliance with Newport Gwent Dragons; then there was a stint with Leinster which had its good days [the province won six out of six in their group of the Heineken Cup in 2004/05, his sole year in charge] but ended with a whole heap of recriminations.
After this poor run away from home, Kidney was welcomed back to Munster with open arms and delivered the Heineken Cup in his first year back. Nothing to it.
Disappointment followed the next year with a tame quarter-final exit to Llanelli, but with some canny selection [picking O’Leary and Hurley ahead of Stringer and Payne for the knock-out stages] and the addition of three southern hemisphere threequarters – Lifeimi Mafi, Rua Tipoki and All Black record try-scorer Doug Howlett – Munster again finished at the top of the pile in 2008. That’s some act to follow. You’d say it’s a long shadow, which is where the initial digression [can you start with a digression?] about rotund shadows and all sorts of nonsense came from.
Pack Of Aces
So, taking over from Kidney before the 08-09 season from within the boot-room, McGahan inherited a dominant, Heineken Cup champion pack.
Five of the that pack [Marcus Horan, John Hayes, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell and David Wallace] started all five of Ireland’s Six Nations matches that season; a sixth [Jerry Flannery] started four of them. A seventh [Denis Leamy] was on the bench for four of the games and started the other one, and the eighth and last man [Alan Quinlan] was the break-glass-in-case-of-emergence travelling substitute.
As Eddie O’Sullivan used to say in the middle of the last decade, “Munster have an international pack in a provincial competition.” He always gave this as the reason that he didn’t play a more Munster-centric game at international level, despite the fact that his teams were often half full of Munstermen [or half-empty of other provincial representatives, if you want to take the ‘cribbers on the sideline’ view].
When you look at the Horan [67+]/Flannery [41+]*/Hayes **/O’Callaghan [80+]**/ O’Connell [82+]**/Quinlan */Wallace [72+]**/Leamy [57+] that took the park for the 2008 HEC Final, it’s ridiculous to expect that any team would be able to replace that level of excellence and experience. It’s a bit ridiculous to think that any team in the NH will be able to rival that.
They’ve earned 531 Irish caps to date in an era when Ireland have been competitive, with four of them [O’Connell, O’Callaghan, Hayes and Wallace] having been selected for two Lions tours and two others [Flannery and Quinlan] having made the 2009 selection but missed the tour due to injury and suspension respectively.
And it was a good international team they were playing in: Ireland won the Grand Slam that year and went unbeaten over twelve months. Following the Six Nations and Munster’s 43-9 demolition of Ospreys in the Heineken Cup quarter-final, no fewer than eight of Munster’s side were selected by Ian McGeechan for the Lions tour to South Africa: Flannery, O’Connell, O’Callaghan, Quinlan, Wallace, O’Leary, O’Gara and Earls. The 5-3 split between forwards and backs seemed to show that Munster weren’t just a pack of grinders, and that they had control and class in the backline.
However, it was also an aging team that didn’t have a whole heap left to give. They had huge miles on the clock and, in the Mole’s opinion at least, an appetite that had been largely sated over the last three seasons. Six years after making their first final, and having been to four semi-finals in the meantime, they had finally hauled themselves over the line against Biarritz in the Millennium Stadium in May 2006. Managing to repeat the trick two years later against traditional kingpins Toulouse sealed the province’s reputation as a European heavyweight.