Hall of Fame a fitting tribute for Eadestown's Joe Kavanagh

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Robert Mulhern

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Robert Mulhern

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Hall of Fame a fitting tribute for Eadestown's Joe Kavanagh

Andy Farrell (Ireland Defence Coach), Philip Orr (President IRFU) and Robert McDermott (President Leinster Branch) present Joe Kavanagh with the Leinster Rugby Sean O'Brien

Almost everyone is familiar with the name Sean O’Brien the Ireland rugby player, but there’s plenty who many not be familiar with the name Joe Kavanagh.

Recently, Kavanagh, a farmer from Eadestown received the Inaugural Leinster Rugby Sean O’Brien Hall of Fame award, in recognition of his service to the sport.

This was significant, and service is an ill-fitting word when it comes to this kind of thing, because it never comes close to measuring someone’s contribution.

I’d a conversation about Joe Kavanagh with a Naas man who now lives in Brockley that tried to do that, and I started off explaining how I’d first heard Joe Kavanagh’s name more than 25 years ago.

He was a star rugby player for Naas and the Leinster Juniors, a competitive wing-forward, back when club rugby and not the provinces were the power base of Ireland’s oval ball landscape.

But his playing career ended after a serious neck injury left him stricken on the playing pitches of the Forenaughts’ club with damaged vertebrae in his neck. Joe needed to be airlifted to hospital only to recover and later arrive to coach the Naas U20s.

You might call it a second-career-act and I was on, or on the periphery, of some of those teams. Rugby was at the centre of our world in Naas then, and Joe’s too.

Often at training he would pit himself alone against our rolling maul in the muck and the rain. Under the floodlights we’d wonder about his 80kgs against our collective 600-plus kgs.

And we’d wonder about the vertebrae! 

There was a business lunch in Killashee House Hotel one year, Willie John McBride I think, and Joe broke away from the event mid-way through McBride’s storied retelling of the famed Lions’ tour to South Africa to double down on his commitment to a group of students who returned from colleges around the country to train on Friday nights.

Geordan Murphy was part of that team.

And bolstered by his presence, Naas travelled to Tullow in late 1996 in a competition called the Gale Cup.

Tullow had a star player then of different dimensions to Murphy who went by the name of Chesty. Possibly,  he was the prototype to Sean O’Brien.

Late in the game, Tullow had a kick to the corner that left them with an attacking line-out and a try at that point would have offered them a lifeline back into the contest.

But someone who travelled from Naas had taken on the linesman duties and they ruled that Tullow had kicked the ball dead, even though it was clear to a blind man that they hadn’t.

Their supporters down that particular corner of the pitch were beyond incensed.

And amid the dissent, Joe Kavanagh strode down the sideline unable to contain a mischievous half-smile and said to the Naas’ linesman:  

“That’s it… be decisive!” 

That Naas U20s team went on to win the Gale Cup in 1997 and I’m almost certain that was Geordan Murphy’s first ever rugby trophy.

Within months he’d leave for Leicester and accumulate a few European Cups and an armload of league trophies but before those triumphs, snippets of progress reports used to travel back across the Irish Sea.

He could only have been there a couple of months when a story returned from the English midlands of a drinking session with the Leicester elite, then headed up by Martin Johnson.

They’d gotten ‘blitzed’, according to reports.

I remember working with Joe on his farm one Saturday and sharing the story I’d heard.

“BLITZED… JESUS!” he yelped joyously.

Much mileage was made out of stories like that and so many more that punctuated that particular season with laughter.

Harnessing this mischief would become part of his unique selling point as a coach.

Joe Kavanagh didn’t — and maybe still doesn’t — have a tangible coaching style per say. There was no grand strategy, no big drill down on tactics, and in that regard, he defied what’s now considered conventional coaching wisdom.

But he was used to winning and could motivate a team so well some sports scientist could make a degree out of it.

When laughter did take a break during matches, players wanted to perform.

Often just to prove him wrong.

I heard an interview with the former Liverpool footballer Steve Nicol some time ago and he said that at the magic behind the all-conquering ‘80s’ team success was not the great backroom staff, or the training facilities, but the fun they had.

Victory’s reward was another night on the town together.

It sounds like madness that a general feeling of joy can be a casualty of sport, especially at amateur grades.

Often it is and sometimes you forget that this is why you picked up a ball in the first place.

But never was this the case within the ranks of this particular Joe Kavanagh team and by the sounds of it, the teams that followed behind.

Once the culture bedded down that ‘97 season, his coaching style continually recycled and people absolutely wanted to be a part of.

There was success, and plenty of it. This at a time when success wasn’t a regular return for Naas underage teams too.

Lots of players went on to have great playing careers. Too many to mention. And plenty more drifted away and into other things as tends to happen. But countless times over the last decade, conversations about Naas Rugby Club have been headlined by Joe Kav’s name.

What’s he up to? Is he still there? And most recently, that Hall of Fame award.

Often such contributions are too easily passed over in Ireland, or they become an experience that we’re led to believe can only found within the GAA.

Putting this award on the local public record is something I’ve no doubt that subject of this piece will shake his head and baulk at too.

But we’re living through a period when society promotes celebrities who do very little and amount to little more and this award is a timely recognition of someone who’s done plenty, for where they’re from.

To be still talking about that plenty, 20 years on in south London, is testament in itself to that fact.

Robert Mulhern is a London based journalist contracted to RTE's The Documentary on One