It is demonstrative of the rate of change that takes place in English coaching that Declan Kidney will next week celebrate the third anniversary of his arrival at London Irish as currently the fourth long-serving boss in their position in the Gallagher Premiership.
Such is the volatility of life in the top flight in England, only Exeter’s Rob Baxter, Newcastle’s Dean Richards and Bristol’s Pat Lam have been in their posts for longer than Kidney. Yet there was no guarantee when the 2009 Ireland Grand Slam-winning coach first walked in the door at the Exiles on March 9 in 2018 that he would still be going strong 36 months later.
Irish head to Leicester this Friday enjoying a rich vein of form, winning three and drawing two of their last six matches to lie seventh in the table. Such giddy heights were unimaginable given the mess Kidney inherited, an Irish rabble that were a dozen points behind Worcester and facing an inevitable relegation.
So it proved, the Exiles enduring a miserable top division exit where a total of 159 points and 22 tries came crashing down on them via Exeter, Saracens and Bath in their final three games. It has been a long road back, a Discover England ordeal in the second tier giving way to a challenging first season back in the Premiership where they managed just a single win in their nine post-lockdown games and just six in all during the season for a tenth place finish.
That was worrying given the massive level of investment poured into the recruitment of some stars of the world game, the likes of Sean O’Brien, Waisake Naholo, Adam Coleman and Sekope Kepu to name but four. Those first three names have all had significant injuries while Kepu last month quit the club for personal reasons.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 3, 2021
And yet, it suddenly all seems to be clicking for Irish. A new stadium move oozing with potential, hugely improved results, troubled players such as Paddy Jackson revelling in a new lease of life and plenty of attractive tapestries to suggest that the yo-yo Irish were spot on all those years ago in handing the reins to Kidney, someone who had been away from the sport since losing his gig as Ireland boss in 2013.
Three years on the beat, did Kidney think he would get that far with London Irish? “It’s always dangerous when you walk in and you’re telling fellas about a three- and a five-year plan because you never know you will be there or not,” he admitted when quizzed at the club’s weekly media conference by RugbyPass.
“I didn’t know whether anyone would want me back or not but what I did was I looked for two sorts of clubs: one was going to be something almost at the top, or a project and this is certainly a project. We played Gloucester in our first match (in 2018) and after about 15 minutes we were 17-0 up and I was thinking, ‘Sure there is nothing wrong here’. Then for the next hour, it showed us a few things.”
Irish beat Harlequins the following week before getting battered on their Premiership farewell by Saracens, Exeter and Bath. “They were fantastic matches for us to learn what was needed for the Premiership – you can’t just flick a switch and put that in place.
“In the last game against Bath that year, we played all the players who were going to be around with us again the following year in the Championship, so that showed us then where those lads were. It was Ben Loader’s first appearance in that particular game.
“Then the year in the Championship was a growth area for some of the younger players and we were heavy in recruiting then as well. I remember that November and December, Les (Kiss) and myself were talking to a number of lads and it takes a while for them to come on board.
“We were going into a World Cup year after the Championship and things weren’t too bad last January, we were starting to click into gear and then the way the journey has gone for us, Covid set in and presented its own challenges but we took decisions in the summer to make sure we would get the younger fellas more game time because felt it would accelerate their progress.
“Even though there was a bit of pain along the way to grow (eight defeats in nine), sometimes you have to be willing to take knocks on the chin and we took that during the summer and the players are starting to just get a bit of a reward for that now.”
It’s not just what is happening in front of his eyes on the pitch that has Kidney beaming either, it’s the whole make-up of the London Irish club that has him giddy over the potential that can be realised in the years to follow.
“This is actually a massive club,” he insisted. “The potential of it is huge and where we are is at the building stage. Like, the club went to America a few years ago for a match, got 20,000 at it. There are many different aspects of this club I can draw on. The amateur side of the club runs one of the biggest underage tournaments in non-pandemic times, with 2,000 kids here around Easter.
“Where are we [the professional team]? We’re just on an upward cycle and there is plenty of road ahead of us that we can grow in both on and off the pitch. To have the privilege of being involved when we moved into Brentford.
“I know I’m biased but of all the grounds I have played in for club rugby, I’m really looking forward to the day when we are playing well enough and we fill it. There will be some atmosphere. It could be a great day out for everybody at the game. So we are making progress but because of the size of the potential of what I see is the size of the club there is lots more growth in us.”
'Too many years fighting for that moment… I did everything, I gave my life to get this moment, I am part of that’
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 29, 2020
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