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Declan Danaher: 'Not bitter... those were 24 pretty cool years'

By Liam Heagney
Declan Danaher playing for London Irish in 2012 (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

These past few weeks have been a sort of homecoming for Declan Danaher, the 44-year-old Londoner who has pitched up in Dublin as the new Ireland women’s defence coach ahead of the upcoming Guinness Six Nations.

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A son of Irish emigrants in the UK – his mother hails from Glin in Co Limerick and his father from Listowel in Co Kerry – it was around 25 years ago when he played for Ireland at U19s level.

However, despite quickly going on to make the first-team breakthrough at London Irish, Danaher was instead representing England when the U21 internationals came around.

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England Women’s coach John Mitchell on the Red Roses squad

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England Women’s coach John Mitchell on the Red Roses squad

Changing allegiance was quite the sliding door moment. He was named in Clive Woodward’s 2002 Six Nations squad, going on to play for their A team and then touring Argentina later that same year with the seniors. Despite his obvious ability, though, a debut Test cap never materialised. Any regrets?

“Look, I was young,” he told RugbyPass, shooting the breeze during a lunchtime break at the IRFU high-performance centre. “And I wouldn’t change anything because of all the things that have happened I wouldn’t be where I am now.

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“Whether that is my personal life, from being at London Irish, maybe it’s like a sliding door moment; maybe if I had declared for Ireland, would I have done something different? But I don’t look back with any regret about what happened.

“I just think I probably missed opportunities, whether it was England or Ireland, to give myself the best opportunity to play. Plus, I look back and go I played in an era where it was a pretty decent England back row – and Ireland back row – but I could have done more, I could have controlled more to give myself that opportunity.”

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Controlled more in what way? “I can look back now and go, I didn’t ask enough questions. I wasn’t curious enough about why I wasn’t getting selected or about what I needed to do.

“I probably went inward – and it’s not about being an extrovert. It’s probably just asking the right questions to the right people and it is about working hard as well… I look back now and wish that I had maybe reached out to more people, more coaches to help me with what I need to do.”

But for the chaotic demise of London Irish last June, Danaher wouldn’t have embarked on the coaching odyssey that has so far taken him to Japan, grassroots in England and now Ireland. He was part of the furniture at the Exiles, spending a whopping 24 years on their books as a player and then as coach.

His wife was even part of the club staff, so its closure hit hard. Any bitterness? No. Time has been a quick healer. “What gives me great joy is turning the telly on and seeing lads who I have worked with playing. It doesn’t matter what team they are playing for or if they are playing international rugby, they are out there doing their thing.

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“So the likes of Ben White, Ollie Hassell-Collins, Calen Englefield played England A, so when I see that, that gives me massive amounts of joy. I only want to look back with fondness on my 24 years there. It does feel strange it’s not there but I had 24 amazing years and met some unbelievable people, coached, played with some real characters.

“Yeah, it’s not there anymore but if I overthink it too much then I’d probably become a little bit bitter and a little bit twisted, so I have just made the decision to go, ‘You know what, those were 24 pretty cool years’.”

Danaher <a href=
England A Ireland” width=”1920″ height=”1080″ /> Declan Danaher in England A action versus Ireland in 2002 (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The silver lining has been Danaher expanding his coaching horizon way beyond London Irish. “That’s it, I wouldn’t have got this opportunity (in Ireland). I have been to Japan; I’m in Dublin now.

“I always talked about it but there was a point where I needed to move on and do different things to become a better coach. I’m hoping this experience is going to make me better and if it makes me better, then hopefully I’m making the players better.”

What helped Danaher to quickly get his pep back and not get dragged down by the misery of the Irish getting nuked was a surprise call from the Far East.

“Simon Amor reached out after everything that happened at Irish and said, ‘Look, would you like an opportunity to coach in Japan? He is working with the Japanese men’s sevens and they were prepping to win the Asian games to try to qualify for the Olympics.

“I have been out five or six times now to Tokyo, basically fly out, coach the contact area with them for a week, and it’s brilliant. I’d never been to Japan. Wonderful nation, great lads playing sevens. Simon runs a pretty tight ship and it was good to be back in that environment after everything that had happened.

“The RFU took over the Irish academy so I stayed on and did some work with the 18s and 16s, and that work is sort of still going on now. They have just finished their academy league but because those lads now aren’t necessarily affiliated to a club, they are all looking for different clubs.

“Some good young players are coming through there. Probably the one, Martin Offiah’s kid, Tyler Offiah is coming through there; I’m sure we will see him in one of the Prem teams in the next couple of years. Serge Betsen’s kid as well. You know you’re getting old when you are starting to coach kids of dads who you played against.

“Done a bit down at Rosslyn Park, which has been great. That is a different experience, I had never really coached lads who work in the city and they are training on a Tuesday and a Thursday and playing on a Saturday.

“They have got a real mix of people there: the likes of Charlie Walker, who had been at Quins and just transitioned into the city, to young academy lads like Dan Hiscocks, who is at Ealing, a nine. So you have got a real mix of abilities and levels. I appreciate Kieran Power has made me welcome. It’s been a really mixed bag.”

A mix that now includes working with Ireland at Test level, Danaher’s first-ever involvement in the women’s game. “Me and Scott (Bemand, head coach) have known each other a long time. Sort of the same era when we played, we were on a similar coaching course in England and we have always kept in touch.

“After everything had happened at Irish, I knew he had taken over here and semi-joking, semi-serious he said, ‘If there was an opportunity to be involved, would you like to do it?’ I was like, ‘Yeah!’ He rang me around November, December time. He was going around the English clubs that have Irish players.

“We sat and had a bit of a chat about what he is trying to create. He said, ‘Look, do you want to come on board for the Six Nations and we’ll see from there?’ I said, ‘I’d love to do it’. For me, it’s something I have never done. Number one, never coached international rugby (XVs). Two, never coached in the women’s game.

“There was a really curiosity to go and do that because I know it is going to make me a better coach and I like the opportunity to help players to prepare themselves and get opportunities at international level. That really, really appealed.”

Inked in the record books as the longest-serving London Irish player in the professional era, Danaher was a talisman in the men’s code and his recent weeks coaching in the women’s game have been eye-opening.

“It’s a bit of the unknown for me. It’s the same game but at the same time, there are differences around the kicking game, attack philosophies, intent, defensive philosophies, the way they see the game.

“I’m starting to figure it, starting to navigate the landscape and it has been great to be over here and watch the Clovers and the Wolfhounds play in the Celtic Challenge. Whoever came up with that idea, it has been brilliant. The games have been fantastic and with that level of competition, you start to get an idea.

“The men’s game is heavily around box kicking and that is not as emphasised in the women’s game. There is more attack, more opportunities, 10s in the pocket and kicking, keep the ball alive.

“It’s starting to figure out those little differences, if that makes sense. But at the same time it is the same game – go forward, create momentum, whether that is defence or attack, and that normally leads to good things.”

How does he view defence, his specialised area of expertise? “It’s evolved. It’s sort of cyclical. I was lucky enough to play under Brendan Venter, so I suppose from a player’s point of view I was heavily influenced by line speed and blitz, but my ideas and philosophies have evolved over the last couple of years.

“Connection is the wrong word but you can get to a point where you can be very aggressive in defence, but it doesn’t happen overnight. You are going to get things wrong…

“Rome wasn’t built in a day, it’s getting the foundations in place. There is a massive amount of intent… I’m starting to see there is more than one way to skin a cat and I’m just figuring out what works for this group.”

Ireland hit their nadir in last year’s Six Nations. Five defeats left them with the wooden spoon and they also scored just a miserly 25 points in 400 minutes. It resulted in the exit of Greg McWilliams, leaving new head coach Bemand with plenty to do, starting against the French in Le Mans next Saturday.

“How do we close the gap? A World Cup is coming up and we want to allow ourselves to qualify for that,” suggested Danaher. “You do that by putting in performances, so you grow what you are doing.

“You close the gap through training, through the level of competition, through those two things. The girls here have got a taste of that through the Celtic Cup.

“We have to raise the bar in training to drive the standards and then when you go out and play the likes of France and England, that shows you whether your training is having the right effect or are we still off from a physical, metrics point of view. But then also from a competition point of view, attack versus defence, we need to raise the bar again.

“We want to be competitive. We’re going away to France, playing England away. We have got three home games and want to put in performances at home we are proud of.

“When I think of it like that, that is where we want to start, put in performances at home we can hang our hat on and are proud of defence, attack, set-piece and going after them in the kicking game as well.

“Every team is different, I’ve watched a little of France, watched a little bit of England as we are prepping, so every week is going to be a slightly different challenge. It will be good how we go about exciting the girls for those challenges every week.”

Whatever the results, Danaher is glad to have jumped in all these years after cutting his ties as a potential Ireland men’s player. “It has been really nice to be in this environment and the training centre here (in Abbotstown) is everything I imagined it to be.

“You have got the men, the sevens, the 20s, the women in. It’s a great place to be. It does probably feel a little bit strange coming in but all has been forgiven. I have really enjoyed it and people have made me really welcome. I massively appreciate that.”

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