Dave Kilcoyne: ‘The whole of Munster is desperate for a win’
The Limerick man is determined to give his all for Munster in Saturday’s Pro12 final
Saracens’ Mako Vunipola and Dave Kilcoyne of Munster at the European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final at the Aviva Stadium in April. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
A little disappointment in life can go a long way, providing a bottomless source of motivation if stripped bare of self-pity.
Dave Kilcoyne understands the notion because, periodically in his rugby career, he’s overcome setbacks by appreciating the virtue of graft, underpinned by a positive mental attitude.
He could have absorbed those qualities by osmosis in observing his parents Pat and Pauline, but there was also a practical application. Few escape the scars of schools rugby. As a second-year in Ardscoil Rís, he didn’t make the Junior Cup squad that won the trophy.
The disappointment was acute. From that summer on he climbed out of bed at 6.30am to catch a lift with his father to go to the gym before school. There were no immediate rewards in terms of silverware – he lost a Junior Cup final in third year and in three years on the SCT didn’t make it past the quarter-finals – but what it did instil was a work ethic that stood him in good stead.
He explained in an interview: “Sometimes, I think you have to get a setback early in your career. There have been studies done that show that more successful athletes get a setback early in their careers, and they tend to have better careers than athletes, say, who are at the top level from a very young age, the whole way through. It has to do with dealing with adversity, too. I think it helped me, made me hungry.”
He recalled receiving an email one night from the late Anthony Foley endorsing that viewpoint. The pathway to professional rugby was more boreen initially than dual carriageway. A late arrival to the sub Academy, he spent two years there before graduating to the Academy; 12 months later was offered a professional contract.
While in the Academy he earned money as a bouncer in the Trinity Rooms in Limerick, working until 3.30am, aware that he had to present himself for a weights session in the University of Limerick gym at 7am. Sometimes he slept poorly, sometimes not at all, petrified that he might not wake up in time.
He’d made a promise to his mother Pauline that he would get a degree no matter what rugby dangled in front of him. He smiled: “It worked out well because when I finished my degree, I signed my first professional contract. I don’t know would I have been able to do it if it worked out later in my rugby career.
“I didn’t get into the Academy until very late. I took a couple of years off and put everything into rugby. Last year I decided to go back and do a Masters in business project management.” He’s currently trying to finish his thesis while preparing for Saturday’s Guinness Pro12 final against the Scarlets and Ireland’s summer tour to America and Japan.
Undaunted by challenges, the 28-year-old Kilcoyne accepts that he is a positive person by nature. “Mental strength is my biggest strength. I probably owe that to my parents and how I was raised.”
It’s just as well because earlier this year he endured yet another disappointment. Fresh from a man-of-the-match performance and scoring two tries in a league game against the Ospreys, he was omitted from Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad for the Six Nations Championship.
First capped in 2012, he’s made 17 appearances for his country and while he knew that there were imperfect parts to his game earlier in his career, he felt that he worked hard to rectify the flaws; not making the squad smarted.
“I was bitterly disappointed, especially after I thought I had a quite positive impact in the November series when I came on against Canada. I had a couple of line breaks even though it was a brief display. I have reiterated that to the Irish management as much as I can, that I don’t need a lot of time on the pitch to make an impact.
“I still feel that my Irish career isn’t where it should be. The comments would have been a lot different at the start. I was given clear things to work on and I think in fairness to Joe he has recognised that. I think he was really happy where my game was at and when you are getting comments, ‘more of the same’, there is a bit of bad luck there [in not making the squad].”
In the absence of Jack McGrath, who is touring with the Lions in New Zealand, Kilcoyne will vie with Leinster’s Cian Healy for primacy with Ireland. Kilcoyne offers a simple mission statement: “Hopefully during the summer tour I get to kick on and I do want that number one Irish jersey. I want to leave Joe Schmidt in no doubt that I am the number one loosehead going forward.”
He is appreciative of what Schmidt has done in helping Kilcoyne improve as a player and that communication channels remain open and supportive.
Prior to his Irish commitments, there is a Pro12 final to be won in the colours of his beloved Munster, the bubbling passion for the province latent in tone as well as words.
“In Rassie [Erasmus], Jacques [Nienaber], Felix [Jones] and Flah [Jerry Flannery], I believe it is a world-class [coaching]ticket.
“I have been impressed every single day just by some of the words Rassie says. He doesn’t talk that often but when he does it’s golden. Rassie has brought a totally new element to Munster this year. There is a ruthless edge but it is a fair edge too.
“We, as players, are encouraged to play. We encourage each other. We have a saying here, ‘if it is to be, it is up to me.’ If a player makes a decision, we back him and row in behind it. I know it is a cliche but you try and focus on what you can control. I genuinely do love playing for Munster and don’t find it hard to get motivated.”
Kilcoyne’s natural effervescence – it’s unsurprising to learn that he emcees the bus journeys – off the pitch confirms his assertion that he loves human interaction, preferring nothing more than heading for the delights of Lahinch, Liscannor and Cloghane to swim or play pitch-and-putt with former school friends or teammates during any down time.
As befits a player with the nickname “Killer” (his father, Pat was known as Killer during his playing days and that’s how Dave acquired the moniker) he’s partial to the gladiatorial side of rugby, the collisions, on both sides of the ball.
“I try to be the hardest man on the pitch, whether that’s running over someone, shooting out of the line and hammering someone or getting go-forward [BALL)]in a scrum. That’s what Munster supporters really resonate with. You can hear that from the stands, when you carry hard into a wall of defenders, or hurt someone in a big tackle.
“I want to be the most attritional, try to be the most dominant whether in attack or defence. I get an awful slagging off the lads, [the latest] from Niall Scannell at the weekend when I pushed him out of the way, looking to carry ball.”
He’s remarkably durable for one so confrontational: just one knee injury (Clermont) so far in his career apart from missing a game with a bout of food poisoning.
Kilcoyne is unequivocal when discussing what Munster have achieved in the first year under the new coaching regime, and in articulating how much a win in the Pro12 final would mean. “I think it has been a very successful season for Munster. Rugby has gone well. Sarries were better on the day. If we went back and tweaked a couple of things, it could have been a little bit different. We have grown enormously off the pitch.
“Rassie and Jacques have brought a completely different twist to everything, they’re absolutely world-class. They have turned this into a world-class set-up. Munster rugby is in an unbelievably healthy place with them here. I can’t speak highly enough of them.
“That is one thing that Rassie and Jacques have brought in this year, a real positive environment. No matter what industry you’re in, the environment has to be positive. That is definitely there at the moment.
“We’ve another phrase here – we are full of phrases – ‘you try and make the player beside look as good as he can be’. If everyone buys into that idea and I think we have here, then you make real progress in where you want to go as a team.
“Jonesy [Felix Jones] has been a bit of a revelation as well as our attack coach. He was thrown in at the deep end. He’s a positive character. That fella has battled [injury] demons like none of us can imagine. He knows exactly what he wants. Flah has been excellent.
“Everything is about winning on Saturday. I am desperate for a win; the whole of Munster is desperate for a win. I want to win silverware here. All I have won is a B&I Cup. If we win then all I’ll have to win is a European Cup and I’ll be happy, feel like I have won everything I could with Munster. I can retire a happy man.”
Not that the last sentiment is even on the horizon. He’s told his team-mates and possibly anyone willing to listen that he intends to play for Munster until he is 40. Mind you, he’s on the record as stating that future goals include owning a nightclub while moonlighting as the mayor of Limerick.
He deserves the final word: “I’m quite ambitious – if you can see it in your mind, you can hold it in your hand.”