Rob Kearney feels sense of liberation under new regime
Life in the Ireland camp with Joe Schmidt is very different
Rob Kearney: “I would always back myself a little bit. I think you always have to go with your instincts.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Squalling and wet in cold Kildare; a look of calm on Rob Kearney’s face; a different coach; a new tournament; a changing squad dynamic. It may be late January but the feel is of a spring clean. Fresh challenges are breathing life into the Ireland fullback. He knows
Joe Schmidt’s familiar face, his anxieties and his calculating detail.
But there is a difference to the way Kearney will play his game this week against Scotland. Under the Kiwi there is a recalibrating of emphasis, a change in mindset going into Sunday’s first match. The truism here is Schmidt is not Declan Kidney.
For Kearney that means more than just a change of the orchestra’s conductor. In his intelligent, sometimes brooding head there is a philosophical departure and although his poker face gives little away, there’s a suspicion too that with Schmidt the player’s instincts and the coach’s requirements are in harmony.
“Declan enjoyed the fullback to kick a lot of ball. The impression I got was that, when a full back got the ball, his preferred first option was more often than not to have a kick unless there was an obvious opening,” says Kearney. “With Joe, he wants us to counter and have a go straight away.
“I would always back myself a little bit. I think you always have to go with your instincts on it and if you think it is on to go and have a crack, then do. I suppose it is probably a little bit more comforting knowing you have a coach who wants you to do that.
“Yeah, I’d say definitely.”
Kearney is a big boy of the Ireland team now. Unafraid of opinion at 27-years-old, he wears the elder statesman cloak comfortably. Schmidt’s demand for clarity and identification of what players are capable off performing and by extension what he expects them to do, empowers them. There’s no muddy water.
Last year’s match against Scotland was as miserable as today’s slanted rain beating against the hotel window. Australia in November was nasty too but the All Blacks game brought promise, or, at least a glimpse of what’s available to the Ireland team.
“Grim. Should have beaten them. Obviously Rog’s cross field kick . . .” says Kearney in a tidy summation of the defeat to Scotland. “It was a game we should have won. It was a competition, a tournament, where nothing really went right.
“But we have seen him [O’Gara] do that and pull it off before. I think that sometimes is an easy excuse to say ‘someone of that experience, we’re rightly goosed now’. That is never really the attitude. We put ourselves in position to win the game and we didn’t. It was one of the sicker defeats the team has had.”
Clarity begets sharper self criticism and deeper demands, which may explain why the team believes they can move from fifth in the championship last year to first over the next seven weeks. Some of that has got to do with the spate of Irish injuries, which last season confounded and moved even the understated Kidney to lip biting, murmuring frustration.
An irony was that Kidney, by nature, was not a wholesale changer. Kearney sees the Kiwi as more “Gatlandesque” in his willingness to carve teams into his own shape. The consensus according to Schmidt is for the players to agree a plan, his plan.
Kearney had experience at Leinster of the coach’s ability to use words as encouragement or razor wire and perhaps he draws confidence from the new demands.
“I think if there is one thing that Joe has endeavoured to deliver – and I suppose as players we know that he will – if you are not performing he will replace you,” says Kearney almost blithely.
“I think he’s done that a little bit over November and I’m sure there will definitely be changes throughout this competition.”
Sounds like a promise.