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'I'm just delighted to be back in the game'

Former Ireland coach Declan Kidney gave his first press conference as technical consultant at London Irish today.

Declan Kidney (file pic).
Declan Kidney (file pic).
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

IT’S A CHILLY March afternoon at the Hazelwood Centre, London Irish’s state-of-the-art training facility in south-west London.

Out on the pitch, the squad are putting in final preparations for their crunch Aviva Premiership clash with Gloucester on Saturday. Relegation seems inevitable. The club are 12 points adrift of Worcester at the bottom the league standings with five games remaining, but there is a long-term plan. That game will take place at the Madejski Stadium in Reading, miles and miles from London and far away from the sizeable Irish diaspora based in the capital, but more on that later.

Inside Exiles HQ, Declan Kidney and the club’s CEO Brian Facer take their seats in front of a small gaggle of reporters.

It’s been a long time since Kidney did one of these — about five years, give or take.

There’s an awkward pause, as the dictaphones and notepads are set up.

“Are we done already,’ quips Kidney, before shaping to get out of his seat. Still as sharp as ever.

The Corkman’s achievements in Irish rugby are well-known as this stage. There were the formative years coaching PBC, as well as teaching Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara in the classroom, before moving on to Dolphin in the All Ireland League. He would guide an Ireland U19 side containing Brian O’Driscoll and Donncha O’Callaghan to a Rugby World Championship in 1998 before he took up the top job with Munster, and everything changed.

Two Heineken Cup titles were delivered in 2006 and 2008, but there were so many memorable days during his reign at Thomond Park. Then, Ireland came calling for his services and a first Grand Slam in 61 years was secured on an unforgettable day in Cardiff in 2009.

But Test rugby is an unforgiving environment and Ireland’s fortunes began to take a slide. Following a fifth-place finish in the 2013 edition of the championship, Kidney stepped aside and Joe Schmidt stepped in.

Schmidt has taken Ireland to a new level since his appointment, while Kidney chose to take a step back from the game, taking up a role as director of sport at his alma mater, University College Cork.

London Irish, however, have convinced Kidney to return to the game and ideally return the club to its former glories.

The 58-year-old has now taken up his role as technical consultant at the club with Les Kiss on board as head coach. There’s a dramatic beginning to the day, when it emerges that the club’s director of rugby, Nick Kennedy, has announced his departure. Clearly, Kennedy didn’t see where he fitted in this new coaching set-up.

It’s very much the Kidney and Kiss show, moving forward.

“I’ve always enjoyed it,” says Kidney, on his return to top-level rugby.

I’ve always enjoyed coaching sides. I can give you some stats. 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.”

Schmidt joined Kidney in a very select club by guiding Ireland to a Grand Slam thanks to a thumping win over England in Twickenham last Saturday. A clean sweep does not come around too often.

It doesn’t get any easier for Ireland, with a three-Test tour of Australia on the horizon, as well as a visit from the All Blacks.

But with Schmidt at the helm and Rory Best leading the side, Kidney sees nothing but positives for Ireland, moving forward.

“Joe is an excellent coach,’ he says.

“He has done a really good job with the team. 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. The fact is 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. It starts in June when they are down in Australia — three massive Tests ahead of them. Michael Cheika from Australia will know a lot of our lads and the system they have come from, so it is another massive series for Ireland.

That is the joy of international football every game is like a cup final and you try and stay involved for as many as you can. So for someone like Rory to captain the side, and I think of 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 due to Rory and all his leadership team around him. And Joe has facilitated for that to happen.”

When Ulster and Kiss parted ways back in January, the Australian, who helped Ireland to three Six Nations titles during his time as defence coach, was pondering his next move. One day, a familiar number popped on his phone and the rest is history.

“I suppose in life, sometimes the stars don’t align, but in this particular case, one bit of misfortune turns out to be another’s good fortune,’ Kidney explains.

“Les was really unlucky with injuries at Ulster at the time and Ulster and Les parted ways.

“I just gave him a shout to say ‘what would you think?’, and here we are.”

Ireland’s player-management system has been a hot topic this week. The IRFU’s central contracting of players and control over their workloads is the envy of many Test nations.

Asked for his opinion on the contrasting set-ups in Ireland and England, Kidney offers a measure response.

“Give me a couple of weeks and I’ll answer that a little better.

Does it go on results? There was nothing wrong with the English system over the last couple of years when they were winning the Six Nations.”

There were reports that the Exiles tried to lure Kidney across the Irish Sea back in 2014, but the former Munster head coach was equally coy on those rumours

“Somebody told me that, but I don’t remember it,” he jokes.

‘Well, I don’t think I was involved. As the years go on you forget these things.”

There are big plans for the club. Their lease at the Madejski runs until 2026, but they are looking to return to London. A groundshare with Brentford at a new 20,000 all-seater stadium next year looks on the cards. Their application was approved at a council meeting in February.

It would be a hugely positive move for the club. Their current Reading base is not the most inspiring of venues and has failed to capture the imagination of the city, in terms of a fanbase and gate receipts.

Kidney and Kiss are on board for three years, regardless of relegation this season, and the plan is to make the Exiles a force to be reckoned with again.

“I’m just delighted to be back in the game,” Kidney adds.

“It’s like a fresh start and I’m really looking forward to this challenge.”

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