'The reception I got from the crowd was humbling. I always enjoy being home'

Declan Kidney was warmly welcomed as his London Irish side took on Munster in Cork.

WATCHING DECLAN KIDNEY watching his team during the warm-ups at Musgrave Park on Friday was an odd experience.

The observant pose – hands behind the back, eyes calmly scanning the pitch as his coaching staff led the players through their drills – was familiar but the sight of Kidney in London Irish gear felt strange, particularly at one of Munster’s home stadiums.

Declan Kidney before the match Kidney was back at Musgrave Park on Friday night. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

The 58-year-old is a legend among the Munster faithful thanks to his Heineken Cup-winning exploits and he was welcomed home to Cork with great warmth before, during and after a pre-season friendly that saw London Irish beaten 32-28.

Back in the game since March, when he came on board as a technical advisor for the then-Premiership club, Kidney is now London Irish’s director of rugby as they look to bounce straight back up from the Championship in the season ahead.

A Grand Slam winner with Ireland in 2009, Kidney had not been involved in professional rugby since 2013 but he is evidently full of energy and ambition for the task ahead.

While it felt as odd to Kidney to coach against Munster as it was for everyone else to see him do so, he was appreciative of a fine reception at Musgrave Park that included him being applauded up into his seat in the west stand just before kick-off.

“The reception I got from the crowd was humbling and I’m just delighted to be back,” said Kidney post-match. “I didn’t read the small print when I got the contract, so then I found out the first one [pre-season friendly] was here.

“But I know for the lads I’m working with they are working really hard and it was a brilliant game for us to have. I always enjoy being home.”

Kidney had a very familiar figure alongside him in the coaching box on Friday night, with former Ireland assistant coach and Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss now in place as London Irish’s head coach.

Les Kiss and Declan Kidney before the game Kiss and Kidney are bidding for promotion. Source: Martin Bennett/INPHO

They have worked together to great success before, most notably for Ireland’s Grand Slam in 2009 when Kiss oversaw a defence that gave up just three tries in five games.

“Les hasn’t changed a bit,” says Kidney of working with Kiss again. “Les and myself are different but for some reason, we sort of know what one another is thinking and that’s the joy and the fun of working with him.

“He’s a man with very high standards and he’s a good human being. It’s a pleasure working with him.”

There was also an Irish influence on the pitch for the visitors on Friday night, with Jack O’Sullivan and Sean O’Hagan coming off the bench to show their ability.

Both players are on trial at London Irish and have spent the pre-season training hard with the English club with the aim of securing a contract for the season ahead.

Back row O’Sullivan has previously played for Leinster at underage levels and has impressed for Lansdowne in the AIL, while out-half/fullback O’Hagan came through the IRFU Exiles system and has played for Connacht at underage level, as well as having a stint with Ulster’s academy.

“They’ve trained really hard, I must say, I couldn’t compliment them enough for what they’ve done,” said Kidney of the youngsters. “In their case, they both came asking to say, ‘Look, we’d like to have a go at getting into the professional ranks.

“The fact that they were both Irish meant we tried to create opportunities for it. We had lots of injuries in the back row and we explained it fully to Jack and also Sean.

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Jack O'Sullivan tackled by Darren Ryan Lansdowne flanker Jack O'Sullivan hopes to secure a contract. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“As you can see, they were far from out of place out there tonight in a professional setting, so I think they should be very proud of themselves.”

O’Sullivan and O’Hagan will now hope to secure contracts for the season ahead, which will see London Irish looking to secure their place back at English rugby’s top table.

Kidney said it had been difficult to turn down the opportunity to take on ”a real project” at the club, who are keen to end a streak of bouncing up and down from the Premiership.

The experience of new signings such as Stephen Myler, Pat Cilliers, TJ Ioane and Motu Matu’u should help alongside some young talent at the club – Kidney points out that the Exiles had four England U20 players last season – as the club bids for promotion.

“It’s a tough league with a lot of experienced players in it so we could be punished the same way we were tonight by Munster,” said Kidney.

“The Championship will be tough to get out of, but we have to try and do two things – one, get out of the league and, two, see if we have a team that’s capable of challenging in the Premiership the following year because there’s no point, if we were lucky enough to get up, yoyo-ing up and down.”

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Murray Kinsella

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