It’s a landmark that means little, but last week marked the fourth anniversary of one of my bigger breaks in radio. I joined a national station, as a stringer, and for around a year I attended sporting events from Sligo to Cork, doing interviews and vox pops and compiling reports.
My first assignment came at an unremarkable Magners League game between Munster and the Scarlets at Musgrave Park in September 2007. As is custom, I interviewed the winning coach after the match, and as well as getting his views on another Munster win, I decided to ask him about the story du jour in Irish rugby; the then-ongoing failure of Ireland at the Rugby World Cup in France.
The reply, in a word, was unremarkable.
“You’d have sympathy for all of them. They’ve all burst their traps to put everything in place and, you know, it’s very disappointing the way it’s working out for them.”
“There’ll be no one more disappointed than the players and the management themselves.”
What makes those remarks relevant today, is that the man who uttered those words is the individual most responsible for the turnaround in the national team’s fortunes in the intervening four years.
I wonder when he spoke those words in the Dolphin Clubhouse in Musgrave Park, whether Declan Kidney thought for a moment that he could be best-suited to benefit from Ireland’s misfortune. Would he have wished for it to happen? No, I’m sure, but the Heineken Cup winning coach would have known that he would be a strong contender to take over the position in the event of Eddie O’Sullivan’s departure. He could have stoked the fire, told me what he would have done differently, why things were going wrong. He could have increased the pressure on O’Sullivan but he didn’t. He spoke in generalities, in platitudes. There was no criticism. No headline. Kidney kept his true feelings to himself. That is how he operates.
Declan Kidney is humble and modest to the point of satire, but his ways do not change. In his greatest hour, in Cardiff in March of 2009, he declined an invitation to stand with his players as they lifted the Six Nations Trophy. He is not meek however. Make no mistake, Declan Kidney is driven, focussed and determined. This is a man who inspires those around him and without a doubt, has the full respect of those he leads. Men are not as committed as Ireland were in the win over Australia, unless the fully believe in their cause. Remember too, when Ireland’s preparations were in crisis after four losses in August, belief was never lost. Just as there was no catastrophe, there was no delirium when Australia was dispatched. The result was an opportunity, not an achievement in and of itself.
There’s no doubting, mind you, that Declan Kidney has been lucky. There’s no Grand Slam if Jones’ penalty travels three yards longer, or if O’Gara doesn’t connect with a late drop goal. And if Ireland’s defence were to relent late on at Eden Park, then it would be Australia who would have celebrated that night, and South Africa who we would be focussing on now. But if he is fortunate now then he was fortunate in leading Munster to their success for so long too. At some stage luck gives way to something more tangible than that, something more permanent. Class, perhaps.
There’s no man I would rather entrust the hopes of a nation in at this moment in time. That he is one of our own, that he is modest and self-assured in equal measure; both of these are vital. Unlike Lefty Gomez, he’s lucky and good in equal measure. There are question marks about some of his decisions – I’ve raised some myself – but for the first time in our history Ireland have a proven track record of form, an opportunity to shine and a management team to be confident in as we head into a World Cup Quarter Final.
We dare to dream, as fans and as a nation, but our charges are grounded. If Saturday goes wrong, we’ll all hurt, but “there’ll be no one more disappointed than the players and the management themselves.”