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Welsh rugby enveloped in its latest existential crisis

As Wayne Pivac teeters on the edge of finding new gainful employment after a series of disappointing results, the wider-lens story tells of dysfunction and frustration

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'The job has been very good, I was gone out of it for a few years'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Declan Kidney allowed himself a chuckle when it was put to the London Irish boss that he is now fourth on the list of the current longest-serving Gallagher Premiership bosses. Only Exeter’s Rob Baxter, Saracens’ Mark McCall and Bristol’s Pat Lam have been in their posts longer than the genial Irishman, who parachuted in at the Exiles in March 2018.

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Last Thursday’s official launch of the new league season in England highlighted the ruthless business that is professional rugby and its constant churn in personnel. The last time Premiership Rugby held a launch at England Rugby HQ that wasn’t affected by pandemic restrictions was September 2019 and the list of casualties since that photoshoot is lengthy.

Seven bosses – Harlequins’ Paul Gustard, Worcester’s Alan Solomons, Sale’s Steve Diamond, Northampton’s Chris Boyd, Leicester’s Geordan Murphy, Wasps’ Dai Young, Gloucester’s Johan Ackermann – are no longer at those clubs for a variety of reasons while Bath’s Stuart Hooper had his DoR role redefined and has moved away from first-team affairs after last season’s car crash of a campaign.

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Newcastle, who were competing in the Championship in 2019/20 under Dean Richards, have also undertaken a recent changing of the guard and it meant that the managerial picture taken last week in front of the Twickenham tunnel was very different to the personnel that featured in the image snapped three years ago.

Only Diamond has re-emerged elsewhere in the Premiership, taking over at crisis club Worcester who are scheduled to open their new season at London Irish next Saturday, and all the different faces across the league suggest that Kidney, who sat down with RugbyPass in 2019 along with Gustard and Ackermann for an entertaining roundtable three-coach interview, must be doing something right to be still in his role and feeling optimistic that his squad is poised to enjoy its best season yet with him at the helm.

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All the more intriguing about the durability of the soon-to-be 63-year-old Kidney is that before he threw in his lot with the relegation-bound Irish four and a half years ago, he had been away from the sport for five years prior to that. With professional rugby being the sort of industry that evolves at Formula One-type speeds and the nuances of the game keep constantly changing, that layoff was effectively an eternity but the gap somehow didn’t leave him vulnerable.

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Having been chucked on the Ireland scrapheap when the IRFU didn’t offer a fresh contract at the end of the 2013 Six Nations, he sought out a very different existence as a sports director at UCC, the university in his hometown of Cork. That position could securely have taken him through to his retirement, but a call from London reignited his competitive fire and he is back doing what he has always done best – teasing out ways to get an edge on the rugby field every weekend.

“The job has been very good for me,” admitted Kidney to RugbyPass just days before the week-to-week Premiership match routine kicks in again at Irish. “I’m very obliged to Mick Crossan and the board for giving me the opportunity to get back into the game because I was gone out of it there for a few years. I have enjoyed the journey so far. It has been enjoyable.”

Enjoyable but different. With Ireland, his brief was to get the best Test team out on the paddock around a dozen times a year. With Munster, the target was simply winning European Cups. There were no off-field distractions, no other business to entertain other than formulating the tactics that helped his team win trophies.

It’s the way of the rugby world in Ireland, its centralised IRFU model leaving coaches to coach with recruitment, finances and all the business side of the sport being someone else’s responsibility. As director of rugby at London Irish, though, Kidney has his fingers in every pie. “In my role now you are way more involved than you are in Ireland. You’d be at training sessions, the board meetings, the finance meetings, everything that goes with it,” he explained.

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“Every club here has suffered financially in the last couple of years. That is a success story of the last two years, the fact that all the Premiership clubs are still good going and that is the good news, that Worcester are still going. To keep an industry going is a credit to all the people that are funding it, supporting it, sponsoring it, playing in it, working through it.

“Different people took big salary cuts, there was the pandemic, there were the salary cap changes. There have been big changes in the financial side of things in the game in England to try and bring it to a level whereby it sustains its standards but also tries to become financially viable.

“You doubt yourself every time you go into a season,” he added, referencing how the sport keeps on changing. “It is one of the things that drives you on. If you don’t have fear you have overconfidence. You have to have confidence in your own ability because that is the basis (for doing well) but there is a technical side of it that has advanced.

“There is more information. You know, the ball is in play for an awful lot longer. There are nuances in the changes in the law. There was a time with kick chase you could close down the opposition easier but each year those little nuances that come with the law changes to speed up the game are a challenge in themselves, so the game has changed from what it was before. What you could get away with before, you couldn’t get away with now.

“The changes were all made for the right reasons and a lot of them have been successful,” he reckoned regarding the laws that have made rugby a different game from what it was when he exited the Ireland job in 2013. “There are so many more tries then too and you can see there is a lot of merit in those and that is the nature of the game.

“Everybody is always testing the law to the limit. The referee is trying to have common sense in the whole thing, you are trying to have fair play in it and yet it is a competitive environment, so you try and get an edge wherever you can.”

Irish have. Qualification for the Heineken Champions Cup for the first time since 2011/12 is concrete evidence regarding what Kidney is achieving, this entry ticket giving the Exiles a campaign-opening home match in December against Top 14 champions Montpellier before a tasty trip to Cape Town to tackle the Stormers.

However, exhibit A in the case that the veteran coach is doing a fine job at London Irish is that it is shaking off its reputation as a feeder club where promising young English talent must leave if they are to go on and become Test players. Henry Arundell and Will Joseph buried this long-standing bugbear when making their senior England debuts as 19-year-olds in July and numerous other youngsters believe they can follow this representative breakthrough by sticking with Irish.

“The underlying thing is there are lots of players coming through like Ollie (Hassell-Collins, who was uncapped in the Six Nations squad) getting to the England stage and they don’t have to leave anymore. That is where we want to be, we don’t want to be talking about three and five years’ time (with plans) but we do have some underlying goals with all these lads to build the club around.

“Any thought of you having to leave London Irish to get (England) international honours, that is now out the door and Henry and Phil showed that during the summer. By staying in the club and by keep producing players, then who knows what we can achieve going forward?

“We had a bit of disappointment at the end of last season (losing the Premiership Cup final on a tiebreaker rule after extra time) and as you well know, I have learned over the years that sometimes that adversity is in your favour the following year because what we are having to learn how to win, it isn’t easy and we have had to fight for everything. When you fight for stuff you learn what doesn’t work and everybody is learning as you go along.”

Especially pleasing is the vibrancy of the matchday experience at the new London Irish home in Brentford. “The end of the season gone by, with 20 minutes to go against Wasps we were way down but it wasn’t just the comeback (to get the draw), it was the fact we had a big crowd at it and it was the whole interaction between the supporters, the team and that build up to get to a level.

“Reading had been a substantial venue (for Irish) but it was different. I never experienced that in Reading, so to get it to that level where you had a collectiveness about the whole thing, that was a good moment.”

Now it’s onto the business of chasing down many more good moments in 2022/23.

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