IN JUNE, Declan Kidney lost a game of rugby in humiliating fashion. People spoke to him about pressure. And then in September, he lost Nevin Spence, hyped as the next Gordon D’Arcy, and even the most cynical have enough sentiment to distinguish between the pain of defeat and death.
Both hurt, of course. The ultimate professional, Kidney’s pride took a battering by the former event, a 60-0 drubbing in New Zealand. But Spence? That’s a different story.
As he told it in the lobby of the Aviva Stadium last week, it was interesting to see the Irish rugby coach’s guard come down. Normally, especially when receiving praise, he shies away from the attention. He can bristle at criticism too but his default setting is to exert an air of calm and control.
Spence’s death, though, triggers a change in his face. As he spoke of what happened, and how it affected him, there was no sign of mist in his eyes but as he spoke, tension raced to the surface of his face.
“When you’re living with a guy day-in, day-out and training with him, I can but imagine how the Ulster lads feel,” he said. “It’s much harder for them than us. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, so they can learn to cope. You never get over it. You just have to learn a way of coping. That’s the same probably for all of us. It’s something you never want to see happen — people cut out in the prime of their lives, especially athletes. Conrad O’Sullivan was another lad in Munster who was a similar age, several years ago. He would still be thought of all the time within that camp and that would be eight years on. The good thing is Nevin will never leave us. It’s just a difficult thing to put into words.
“But the fact it was Nevin sort of dictates how we all react, though, because he’d probably be the first one to say ‘Cop yourself on, get on with it’.
“I know it’s easy to say but if there is an instruction you feel from him then they’re the ones you’re obliged to do because otherwise you’re disrespecting his memory. Everybody talks about pressure in jobs. That’s reality. That tells you to cop yourself on. One of the things I’ve been really lucky to learn out of professional rugby is that you always look at what you have rather than what you don’t have.”
What Kidney has at the moment is a team under-performing. Since his golden year — 2009 — they’ve hit a wall. The statistical change that saw his reign begin with 10 wins and a draw from his opening 12 games is striking. In the 33 games since a brilliant victory over South Africa at Croke Park, Ireland have won 14, drawn one and lost 18 of their matches — and worse again, six of those wins have been clocked up against lower-ranked opposition — Italy (three times), Russia, the United States and Samoa.
The better teams, aside from Australia in the World Cup and England in a couple of Grand Slam encounters, have decoded the Kidney system. These days, Ireland lose — often narrowly, but they still lose. Yet if he is worried, he disguises his angst.
“To be back here in the stadium, playing against one of the top three teams in the world, that’s the reason you get into it. It’ll be a huge challenge, South Africa — you don’t win two World Cups and ever have a bad side. We’ve put our best foot forward in all the World Cups but they’ve actually gone and won two. That’s the size of the challenge. I’m not sure what the equivalent is in soccer but it’s like playing Kilkenny in hurling. It’s just a huge task.”
And one Ireland will probably fall short in. After all, what the New Zealand trip proved, was that this team has gone off the boil. Defeat by 60 points is a sporting version of the death by a thousand cuts metaphor.
“It’s not something you ever wanted to happen or that you enjoy having happened,” said Kidney. “But it’s not what happens in life but how you react to what happens. The same holds with Nevin’s tragedy. We can either put our heads in the sand or just come out and do what I know we can do.”
Interestingly, in an ideal world, what he would do is just build a team for the next World Cup and fill the intervening years by blooding new talent. But since rugby went professional, stadiums need to be filled for costs to be met.
“The utopia would be a nice thing. Provincially you can do that a bit more. You might have a two-month run in to a Heineken Cup match. That’s eight games. That’s a full international season. The Six Nations is the one that keeps both the provinces and national team on board. Once it went professional there was always going to be a financial aspect to it. That yearly competition is of bigger importance than even nearly the World Cup in terms of keeping the financial model going. You know what it is when you get into it. Utopia would probably allow you to do that but then you’d probably miss the excitement of it. Would these be dead-rubbers? November is far from dead-rubbers. You have to qualify for a competition three years out. You can see the effects on the draw. Scotland ended up ninth, three or four years ago, and ended up in a group with England and Argentina.”
For this reason alone, November is important. A victory over either the Springboks or Argentina will represent a good month. And it is a long time since the Irish national side had one of those.