Tyrone Howe: Kidney deserves chance to lead Ireland
Grey hairs are the inevitable sign that age is beginning to take its toll. Taking part in an Over 35s tournament last Saturday, I heard the immortal line "there's no fool like an old fool", uttered by an ex-Ulster player who was limping off the pitch after the final match.
He was putting his body on the line just one last time¿well, until the next time, that is! Waking up on Sunday morning, I knew exactly what he meant. Monday morning was even worse.
Declan Kidney and Guy Noves, the respective Munster and Toulouse coaches, must have acquired a few extra silver streaks themselves over the weekend.
While both their games went according to prediction they were a lot closer than they certainly would have liked and may have expected.
Munster's achievement, even if it did go down to the wire, raises Kidney's stock even further — two Heineken Cup finals within three years against a background of incredible consistency in this same competition surely guarantee him the position of Ireland national coach.
What more can he do to press his case? Surely he deserves a crack at it. There are issues of course. The main one is that his familiarity with the Munster boys may prejudice his selection when it comes to the national team. It's not wholly unexpected that in a fifty-fifty situation a coach would back the player with whom he is more familiar and who has performed for him in the past. Rugby is based on trust and sometimes better the devil you know, and all that.
I have always enjoyed an excellent relationship with Declan, having worked with him at Ireland "A" level and enjoyed several notable victories over star-studded England "A" sides, in particular. Nonetheless, I once suffered from exactly the fate described above, when Anthony Horgan was selected ahead of me for a summer Ireland tour. As it turned out, like so often late in my career, someone got injured just before the tour was due to leave and I ended up on the plane as the happiest traveller in town.
Once in New Zealand, Declan took me to one side and confessed that, as Ireland Assistant Coach, he had had a major say in Anthony being selected ahead of me. He said that Anthony had been particularly "industrious" of late and it was a reward for his efforts.
As a player who got success later in his career, however, I felt that I worked as hard as anybody to keep up that high level of performance and I didn't like his reason.
Declan went on to say that he wanted to be straight with me about it, it was a tough selection, but that he was delighted that one way or another I had made the trip.
He hoped that it wouldn't be an obstacle to us working together to make it as successful a tour as possible.
The result? No issue, both of us singing from the same hymn sheet, both pulling in the same direction, both part of the same team.
Communication is one of his greatest strengths.
He backs up excellent communication skills with a great depth and integrity.
His teaching background means he is thoughtful, he cares about people — not just their rugby careers, but also their well-being as human beings. He is aware of life's pressures as well as those of rugby. No wonder that Ronan O'Gara, after his World Cup problems, said that in returning to the Munster fold, it was great to be home.
Home meant the Munster rugby "family", and Declan Kidney is the ultimate "family" man.
But do not be fooled, this thoughtful pedagogue is also a tough old boot, who knows his rugby inside out and has one of the best poker faces you could possibly get. He doesn't give a thing away and is a master at talking up the opposition and making sure that complacency doesn't creep in.
This last part is what, I believe, has made Munster such a consistent force over the years.
Kidney will ensure that Munster make life as difficult as they can for Ulster tomorrow night, even with a second XV.
It shows the strength in depth that Munster will have a mountain of experience through the spine of the team. Frankie Sheahan, Axel Foley, Stringer, Warwick, who is an excellent signing from Connacht and Shaun Payne at fullback. They managed to turn Ulster over in the same match last year, when Ulster had a healthy lead at half-time and I foolishly ventured the comment that it was clear that there would only be one winner.
That silver fox, Matt Williams, doesn't have much room for too many more grey hairs, but the Ulster players will do him a massive favour if they can put on a performance, get a good victory, guarantee Heineken Cup rugby next year and give their new signings something really exciting to look forward to next season.
Matt Williams set his stall out early — the away matches were, above all, to blood younger players, and the home games were the must win games. The first of three matches in the space of two weeks will not be easy, but it is time for the Ulster players to deliver.