‘I don’t think your form at the minute is good enough’
On getting the call: ‘When it rang I had a look at the name. Declan Kidney. Fuck it. Ignored it. Deccie obviously wasn’t ringing me to tell me I was captain against France’
I remember the day vividly. It was lunchtime on Sunday, March 3rd, 2013. Myself, Jessica and the four kids went to Luigi Malone’s for pizza and ice cream.
We had tickets booked for The Gruffalo’s Child in the Cork Opera House at three that afternoon so we headed over there. The Gruffalo’s Child will never be the same again.
I was relaxed in my own head. I wasn’t expecting a call because the Munster game against the Ospreys the night before had gone quite well from a personal point of view, and I’d just needed to show that.
My gear was still in Carton House outside of Dublin where the Irish squad had been based for the Six Nations. In fact, as I write these words, over seven weeks later, it’s still there.
I was due in Carton House that night so my day was revolving around that. I was going to travel with Donncha O’Callaghan, as always. I don’t remember whose turn it was to drive but we collect each other around six o’clock to be up there for around 9.30, so I had plenty of time.
Because of where we were, I had the phone on vibrate in my pocket. When it rang I had a look at the name. Declan Kidney. Fuck it. Ignored it.
Deccie obviously wasn’t ringing me to tell me I was captain against France the following Saturday at the Aviva.
About halfway through The Gruffalo’s Child I took JJ to the toilet and the phone went again. I was going to answer it but that wasn’t the time or place so I just let it ring.
After we walked out to the car, which was parked about 200 metres from the Opera House, I rang him back.
I said, “Howya.”
He said: “I need to meet up with you. I need to speak with you.”
“OK, yeah, grand, no hassle. I’m not around though, Dec. I’ve just left the Opera House with the family.”
“When will you be finished there and I’ll meet you?”
Sometimes the management stay in Carton House because they’re so busy, but Deccie was in Cork.
He bent over backwards to try and meet me but I just said, “Deccie, it doesn’t make any difference to me what you say to me, whether it’s over the phone or to my face, I’m not going to look upon you any less as a man. It’s obvious you’ve something to say.”
I’ve learned over the years that the key with Deccie is not to speak too much because that’s what he loves. He’s happy to leave 40-second silences on the phone if you let him.
He said: “No, I can’t do this over the phone.”
“Well sure it’s not good news so, Deccie. I’m not fucking stupid. I realise what’s going on.”
He was humming and hawing, and kept trying to arrange a meeting; it felt like he was having difficulty holding back his emotions.
I was obviously feeling hugely disappointed because I thought I’d weathered the storm with the game against the Ospreys, but he just said to me, “I don’t have a place for you this weekend”.
“OK,” I said. “That’s all right.”
“Do you want to ask me anything about it?”
I said: “Can I ask you, for my own head, why?”
“I don’t think your form at the minute is good enough,” he replied.
I snapped. “Did you see the game last night?”
“Yeah, I was at the game.”
“How did you think I went?”
“You went very well.”
“Is that not the latest form?”
“It is, it is, but I thought Paddy went really well against Scotland,” he said.
“You thought he went really well against Scotland? Well, if that’s how you think that’s fair enough, you know. That’s your opinion, but I wouldn’t necessarily agree with going really well at Test level.”
And he said: “Well, that’s where we are.”
“Grand,” I said, “that’s fine, I’ve nothing else to ask you.”
“I wanted to say it to you before you got in the car and you came up to training and I spoke to you in Dublin,” he added.
“Yeah, I appreciate that. That’s very important to both of us, how it’s handled.”
We hung up. It had been as amicable as it could be. Deccie had been my coach on and off – mostly on – since making me captain of the Under-14s in Presentation Brothers College.
Now I was being dropped from a match-day squad for the first time in 14 years playing for Ireland. We’d had our conversation on speaker, with Jessie and the kids in the car. I talked with Jess for a little while and a swirl of thoughts went round in my head.
I was very conscious of the bigger picture at this stage. I was looking at coaching and issues like that because I was top dog for 10 years, then I was sub, and I was always trying to gain experience, or learn about how important the squad is, and how you treat people.
Named in squad
I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t named in the squad and then have people perceive me as “the difficult Corkman” – he got named in the squad and then he didn’t show up.
As disappointments go, this was huge, but I think the more mature and experienced you are, the better you can handle these things. So I rang him back – just to clarify, as I said, that he had dropped me altogether, that when the squad was announced at tea-time or in the evening, my name would not be there.
I told him that if it was a case of me being named in a squad and then omitted on Tuesday when the team and replacements were announced, I’d make my way to Carton House.
I just didn’t want my team-mates thinking “this fella is sour now that he’s not named in the thing”. I told Deccie: “If I’m in the 30-man squad I’ll be there, nothing surer.”
He clarified that he was not naming me. That was it. It was courteous enough. He’d made his decision.
I was driving us to my parents’ house and was glad to be with my wife and kids and family. I called one or two people whose judgement I trust, but they got it wrong. They advised me to issue a statement that night officially retiring from international rugby.
But something inside me said “don’t do that”. It would have seemed petulant. It would have been a horrible way for it to end.