English Premiership's Irish connections
SEASON LAUNCH: Ireland’s reputation took a huge hit at Twickenham last month, their national team trounced by England by a record score in a World Cup warm-up, but Irishness was to the fore for far more respectable reasons at the same London stadium on Wednesday.
Thirteen years ago after they roamed very different prairies, Declan Kidney and Mark McCall were the two coaches chosen from the dozen present at the Premiership launch to join tournament sponsors Gallagher on the showpiece stage.
Fast forward all these years later and while the pair are still winning trophies, they are doing so in very different circumstances. McCall is the godfather at Saracens, the figurehead of an English club fresh from collecting its second Premiership and European double inside four seasons.
Kidney can only aspire that type of dominance, arriving into the Premiership off the back of a Championship title with London Irish, who have one more season in Reading before their new stadium switch to Brentford. The veteran coach is looking to become a success in an English top-flight where the Irish connections aren’t confined to the capital city clubs.
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Former Ireland international Geordan Murphy is at the helm at Leicester, his old Test team-mate David Humphreys is Johan Ackermann’s boss at Gloucester, while Samoan Pat Lam is looking to transform Bristol in the same way he did at Connacht, whom he guided to a 2016 PRO12 title. Even Alan Solomons has a shade of green, the South African taking his initial steps on the European club scene with Ulster before he handed over there reigns in Belfast to McCall. Small world, eh?
Having splashed the cash in a way he could never have done working in the IRFU provincial system, Kidney can’t wait to find out what his first full season of Premiership action holds for him at a club he joined in March 2018 after a five-year spell away from the game after he lost his Ireland Test team job in 2013.
“We finished on May 4, which was earlier than anyone else… it’s nearly 20 weeks since we have had a game and you can go a bit brain dead too, you can do all the training that you like but it is only when you get back on the park that you know what is happening.
“Given that the (Premiership) Cup is only around the corner and then the league is only four weeks after that, it will be an important learning curve for us. As the promoted side, to have some cup matches before we actually play the league, I’m hoping it will teach us a lot and we will learn a lot about ourselves.
“You can have all these three, four, five-year plans that you like but it is important to live in the present… Brentford has potential but only if we do a bit of a job this year. To be in the Premiership when we move to Brentford is an extra prize for us.
“In Munster, you would get ready for a European match but it is like there is a lot of European matches played in the Premiership week in week out. Each week is its own challenge and there is no such thing as picking a match or isolation match. Each one is a big cup game and that is the challenge that I’m looking forward to being a part of.”
While Kidney is stepping into the unknown, it’s business as usual for serial trophy winner McCall at Saracens. His latest challenge is formulating a plan to cope with having an XV team of players away at the World Cup.
“We have been looking after a different group. We have got quite a lot of people who aren’t with us – we have 15 players in Japan which is fantastic for the club. That allows us to give all our attention to our younger players and we are very excited about them.
“Last year there were some teams down towards the bottom which nobody expected really and it was a real fight to get into the top four. With London Irish coming up and signing the way they have signed and having an experienced coach like Declan in the ranks…
“You see Bristol come up last year and they are firmly established now – it is going to be an incredibly competitive league anyway and then with who is missing World Cup players, that is going to have an effect that is for sure.”
Seventy-eight Premiership players in total are in Japan for World Cup 2019, the tournament that McCall believes England are primed to do well in even though Kidney was included to give Ireland a free pass for the calamity they encountered at Twickenham only a few weeks ago.
“From an Irish point of view, it was an accident waiting to happen… the Irish lads won’t be reading too much into as they were both at different parts of their prep. I wouldn’t read too much into these warm-up games,” Kidney claimed.
“It is the best World Cup, the most open for years, and anybody who gets a bit of momentum in it will go a long way. There will be twists and turns along the way – it is the hardest one to call.”
Last word to McCall. “Ireland are a team who on their day can beat anybody. They have proven that over the last two or three seasons, a couple of wins over the All Blacks, the Grand Slam that they had. They are reliant upon not getting injuries to key players but from what I can see England are the team that can probably absorb some injuries.”
By Liam Heagney, RugbyPass