Kilcoyne quickly looking after number one

Sat, Nov 17, 2012, 00:00

It’s been a rapid rise for David Kilcoyne and the loosehead could be set to become a fixture for Munster and Ireland for years to come, writes GERRY THORNLEY, Rugby Correspondent

David Kilcoyne looks down Limerick’s Henry Street from a table by the window on the first floor of the Savoy Hotel and nods toward the building where Crunch Gym used to be. In his two Senior Schools Cup years, Kilcoyne would set his alarm for 6.30am and be take a lift from his dad en route to work for a 7.30am work-out before going on to Ardscoil Rís. Five years on and he’s wearing the Ireland number one jersey in Thomond Park.

“It was something I always aspired to be. Professional rugby was something I always wanted to do. That was always the goal.” The boy wanted it alright and this season, the boy has rapidly become a man.

Today’s selection undoubtedly has one eye on the 2015 World Cup and in that regard nobody embodies what this game is about more than Kilcoyne. His one-time Munster Academy director, Ian Sherwin reckons it will take another three years before Kilcoyne comes close to reaching his full potential, and says: “I think that timing is everything. At underage, Barry O’Mahony was the best performer of his generation but then he was trying to get into an international backrow. ‘Killer’ has come out of the Academy at the right time when really good players are at the end of their careers.

“Could he be the next Munster and Irish loosehead for years to come? Why not? Timing is everything. He’s still a young player. All of this is looking towards the next World Cup and hopefully he can win 15 or 20 caps between now and then. That’s what he needs. By 2015 he’ll have had three years playing with Munster and Ireland, and if he stays healthy and injury free he could go on to play in two more World Cups after that.”

Of course, the freakishly talented Cian Healy is still only 25 (and already has 34 caps to his name) but at any rate suddenly no position in Irish rugby looks healthier in the long-term than loosehead prop.

Rookie season

Coming into this, his rookie season as a professional, Kilcoyne had started only once in his five Munster league appearances. The odds on him wearing the number one jersey today on the back of a Test debut last week would have remained considerable. But having held his own against Leinster at the Aviva, he marked his Heineken Cup debut in an initially dominant Munster scrum away to Racing Metro with some powerful carries, before he backed that up at home to Edinburgh a week later. Ireland’s management were itching for closer inspection, and it helped that the replacements’ bench was expanded at Test level in this window to include a second prop. More good timing.

“I suppose I’ve been lucky and things have gone my way,” he concedes. “Deep down I had a belief within that the end goal was to start Heineken Cup for Munster and eventually play for Ireland. I suppose I got lucky. Rob (Penney) gave me chances with Munster when he came in, games kind of went my way and now Deccie (Kidney) has given me my chance here.”

Even towards the end of last season, as he forced his way on to the Munster bench, he was by no means contented, and Penney’s arrival was perhaps timely too. “Rob coming in seems to have freshened everything up with Munster and there seems to be a great atmosphere within the club. We’re trying to play a new brand of rugby which I’m still trying to get used to, but it seems to suit my kind of play.”

His father, Pat, takes some of the credit, not unreasonably, not least having won a Cup medal as a loosehead prop himself, albeit a Munster Schools Junior Cup with St Munchins in 1973, before work assumed priority. Having been called to work on his grandmother’s farm, Kilcoyne snr became a manager in Chadwicks for many years.

Backrow, hooker then prop

From Ballinacurra, Kilcoyne played Gaelic football and hurling in his local club, Old Christians, but also began playing rugby with Bohemians, his dad’s club, with the under-eights. His older brother Páraic played in UCC and younger brother Alan in Garryowen, the former was a winger, the latter a fullback. “I seem to get the other genes in the family,” he notes.

On moving to Ardscoil Rís, schools rugby took precedence, when both he and his close mate, Munster hooker Mike Sherry, were backrowers. After moving to hooker and then prop, he then became part of the UL Bohs academy as well as the Munster Schools, under-19s and 20s.

At the insistence of his mother Paulene especially, he combined all of this with a four-year degree in business studies and achieved a 2.1 in accounting and finance. “I was lucky, I had a lot of help from my girlfriend Emily,” he says with a self-deprecating chuckle. By then he’d long since become a huge Munster fan, and with strong family friendships between the Kilcoynes and Murphys, a stand-out memory was the win over Sale and Barry Murphy’s wondrous try that day as well as being at the 2006 final in Cardiff.

He says he revels in the Munster environment, and the same again within the Ireland squad. An engaging, good-humoured lad, some of his new Irish team-mates have been chiding him about his ‘fat suit’ and describe him as typical Munster, in that he enjoys a laugh but when it’s time to work he gets down to it.

Sherwin says Kilcoyne was even “a bit of a rogue but a really good bloke,” and Kilcoyne had to serve two years on the sub academy before progressing onto the full Munster academy.

“He was knocking around before I came in and initially I was hesitant but I was urged to reconsider,” admits Sherwin. “I sat on him for a year but once he got that roguishness out of him he really came on. Like any impatient young fella he was looking for a contract and was considering moving on but I encouraged him to stay. He’s also a very smart lad, and got close to a first class honours in business.”

7am weight sessions

With their scrum a major weapon, he won two All-Ireland under-20 titles with UL Bohemians, before two seasons on their AIL side culminated in promotion from Division 1B last season under Colm Tucker jnr. In his first year at UL, he played for the Under-20s on a Saturday, and the seconds on a Sunday and as well as his studies there were three 7am weights sessions a week.

“At the same I was working as a bouncer in town. Some nights I remember getting in from work at maybe three o’clock and I’d have training at seven. Cozzy ran a tough academy system. If you were late you wouldn’t be allowed train, so they were kinda tough years to get through with college. Things are easier now. Just bigger games.”

The game time with UL Bohemians, juniors and senior, was invaluable in Kilcoyne’s progress according to Sherwin, who believes young props benefit more from game time in the AIL more than any other position.

“Remember, they are only allowed push (at scrums) a metre in school, so where else can they get the experience? Apart from exceptional cases like Cian Healy, they have to be playing week-in, week-out in the AIL. They’re coming up against fellas who’ve been around the block. You cannot replace that scrummaging experience in the gym.” Learning your craft

There were also two British Irish Cup games, with Munster reaching successive finals and winning the trophy last season. “You learn your craft at that level,” Kilcoyne admits. “You learn from games and from scrummaging. The more game time the better. Even this year with more games I feel fresher.”

Of all the days cutting his teeth, one stands out; a BI Cup game away to Bristol two seasons ago when Kilcoyne was opposed by the well-travelled, England capped, 39-year-old Darren Crompton.

“He gave our scrum a bit of a lesson and you learn from that. I had a chat with Paul Mac (McCarthy) afterwards and we learned to do things differently and I said to myself I’d never let that happen again.

In the last two years he’s being doing QFA (qualified financial advisory) exams “to keep the brain ticking over” as he puts it but last season, finally, he could pretty much devote all his energies into rugby. “That was the be-all and end-all for the year that was in it. I set out my goal to get a full-time contract and I was lucky enough to get one.”

He’ll never forget when Penney told him he would be starting against Racing Metro. “It was a big day for me and my family. I remember ringing my dad and telling him, and he nearly dropped the phone he was so proud. Rob and Paul Mac told me to do what I’d been doing in other games, and that’s what I did.”

Last week came his first Ireland cap, albeit as a temporary replacement. “I thought I should have been more nervous than I was but lining up for the national anthem it really hit home then, that you’re representing your country and you have to deliver. It was a very proud occasion.”

He’ll keep that number 17 jersey for life, and in addition Donncha O’Callaghan swapped his jersey with Flip van der Merwe which he then gave to Kilcoyne, echoing a gesture Ronan O’Gara made for O’Callaghan on his debut.

This evening, Kilcoyne will have his first Ireland number one jersey, and he can scarcely believe it’s at Thomond Park.

As another huge day for Kilcoyne looms, the message from Declan Kidney, Greg Feek et al will be akin to the words from his Munster coaches.

Just keep doing what you’re doing Killer.

Minute's silence: Former Fiji wing Kunavore dies aged 29

There will be a minute’s silence before this evening’s game as a mark of respect to Maleli Kunavore, the former Fiji and Toulouse wing, whose death in hospital in Suva on Thursday night has rocked the Fijian squad.

Kunavore, who ended his five years at Toulouse during which he played 80 times and scored over 100 points, retired in 2010 after he suffered two major injuries to an arm and underwent a cardiac operation. He was part of the Fiji side that reached the quarter-finals of the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France. The cause of death was undisclosed but it was confirmed the 29-year-old died in Suva private hospital.

Fiji Rugby Union’s development manager Sale Sorovaki said in a statement: “It is so sad to lose a fellow rugby player and at such a young age. Kunavore was a very gifted and talented player and our thoughts and prayers go out to his family. May he rest in peace.”

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