London Irish’s Declan Danaher tells Damian Dolan about his 20 years at the club and his transition from player to coach
Just as it will for London Irish next year, when the club returns to the capital to play its home matches at Brentford’s new stadium, life has come full circle for Declan Danaher.
Twenty years after joining the club as a wide-eyed young flanker in the height of the Dick Best era, Danaher is now part of Declan Kidney’s coaching set-up hell-bent on bringing the glory days back.
Rewind to 1999 and club legends like Conor O’Shea, Justin Bishop and Stephen Bachop were suddenly teammates of the young Danaher.
In that same year, it was Kidney who gave Danaher his Ireland U19 debut.
In the intervening 20 years Danaher has witnessed up close, first as a player and now as a coach, the move from Sunbury to the Stoop and then to Reading, Powergen Cup success, Premiership final and European Cup semi-final appearances, and on two occasions the pain of relegation and the joy of promotion.
In his two decades, he’s “seen a lot”.
If that wasn’t enough, the most recent of those ups and downs have played out to the backdrop of the club’s return to west London in 2020 and its move to Brentford Community Stadium, after nearly 20 years in Reading.
Danaher, who turns 40 next month, is an important link to that colourful past, as the club prepares to step into a bright new future, back in London.
“I’ve seen a lot over the last 20 years and it’s been a good ride so far,” Danaher told the Irish World.
When he eventually called time on his playing career in 2014, he’d amassed 275 appearances for London Irish and scored 23 tries.
By then Danaher had already taken his first steps into coaching, with the club’s academy, before moving up to the senior team three years ago. The subsequent few years have been “chaotic”, but never dull.
While “nothing beats playing”, he’s found coaching to be hugely fulfilling.
“Coaching is very, very different – it feels more rewarding. You’re helping people become better at their game,” said Danaher.
“It’s a massive part of why I became a coach, to give something back and to help the kids coming through.
“Advice, coaching, skills work – it’s a good feeling to watch these kids come through and make their first-team debuts, and then kick on to bigger and better things.
“It’s a different sort of fulfilment [to playing].”
The likes of Joe Cokanasiga and Johnny Williams passed through his hands on their way into the Irish first-team. Now, London Irish supporters are waxing lyrical about the exploits of exciting 21-year-olds Ben Loader and Tom Parton, and Ben Donnell, who is 19.
“I can remember recruiting Ben [Donnell] to the academy when he was 15 or 16 years old. They actually weren’t going to put him through, but I said ‘nah, this kid has to go through’,” Danaher recalled.
“It’s so rewarding to see him now pulling on a London Irish jersey. That’s what makes it special.”
Holding on to such talents, not unearthing and developing them, has been the club’s problem over the past decade. The likes of Jonathan Joseph, Marland Yarde and Cokanasiga head a list of exciting prospects nurtured by Irish, only to be cherry-picked by their Premiership rivals.
Danaher cut his coaching teeth with the academy during the final two years of his playing career, helping the club’s AASE team (St Paul’s College) reach the competition’s semi-finals.
Last week, Danaher looked on with pride as the team won its first-ever AASE league final at Allianz Park, when they beat Beechen College. It was from Danaher that Irish’s current AASE coach, Richard Pryor, took over the reins.
“I realised how enjoyable coaching can be and that lit the fire in me,” he recalls.
Nick Kennedy and Paul Hodgson – two London Irish club legends in their own right – later joined Danaher at the helm of the club’s academy.
But while Danaher found coaching at academy level hugely rewarding, the challenge to test himself at senior level was one he couldn’t pass up when the opportunity came, despite the increased pressure and its results-orientated nature.
Danaher, Kennedy and Hodgson later stepped up to the club’s first-team, leading it to promotion in 2016/17 only to be relegated the following year. It’s an environment, though, that he enjoys.
“Coaching senior rugby makes you a better coach,” he said.
“Time constraints, pressure….you figure out very quickly what works and doesn’t work at Premiership level.
“Week in week out, you’re playing against different teams with different styles. So you’re always tweaking your plan.
“If you make too many changes then the boys don’t execute – make too few changes and the opposition figure you out. It’s been a massively interesting experience.”
It was Kennedy’s departure in March 2018 which saw the arrival of Kidney, who guided Ireland to Grand Slam success in 2009, and Les Kiss. Danaher stayed on and a second Championship title in three seasons followed last April.
“Dec’s (Declan Kidney) the same age I am now (39) when he coached me 20 years ago. He hasn’t changed a bit,” said Danaher.
He’d already taken much from playing under the likes of Best, O’Shea, Brian Smith, Toby Booth, and has continued his coaching education with Kidney and Kiss.
The “biggest thing” he’s learnt from both he says is the importance of building player relationships, and working out “how to get the best out of people”.
A case in point in recent weeks has been the arrival of Australian duo Adam Coleman and Nick Phipps. The job now of Danaher and his fellow coaches is to get them producing their international form in a London Irish jersey.
“You have to figure out what they like doing and what they don’t like doing,” he said.
“They’ve got to earn the right to get into the team, but you also want to make them feel comfortable in a new environment. And you also want to learn from them.
“You need ‘buy in’ from them so it’s not just a case of ‘do it our way’. It’s ‘let’s figure this out together and let’s make this work’.”
Having been part of the club’s glorious and rich past for 20 years, Danaher is now hell-bent on making sure it has an equally colourful and successful future.