Rob Kearney well aware of Zane Kirchner threat
But the Leinster player can take the heat
Zane Kirchner training with the Leinster squad. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
There’s one thing Rob Kearney has had to get used to. It’s not his current Kung-Fu Panda look, courtesy of two black eyes. He has always had to glance over his shoulder.
Last year it was Isa Nacewa. This year it’s Zane Kirchner. But at 27 Kearney’s seen enough faces flow through Leinster to be sanguine about the South African fullback parachuting in from the recent Rugby Championship.
As Nacewa was, Kirchner is a versatile player. But with two Lions Tour stripes Kearney can take heat. He may not want it as hot as Jimmy Gopperth’s full press on Ian Madigan but the way of the rugby jungle is that someone somewhere always wants your shirt. Kearney knows it, expects it, has it covered.
“He’s been pretty quiet so far,” he says about Kirchner, who played as first-choice fullback under Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer. It was a controversial team selection by Mayer as the mercurial Willie le Roux was shunted on to the wing.
“Of course it’s helpful. We always say competition is a good thing when you’re the right side of it,” he adds.
“Maybe when you’re in second place, it’s not as good! How that is going to pan out over the next few months, I’ve no idea.
“It’s been difficult for him especially coming to a new team. Also coming to a squad where the season is already kicked off and guys are playing and big matches are coming.
“But he’s going good. I think the guys are making an effort with him and it’s more important over the next few weeks that guys do make an effort with him. I think the players have a pretty big responsibility to make sure he settles.
“Even with him now, I know there’s going to be good competition. Back-three players is something we’ve been strong in. It’s the same as when Isa was here. There will be some interesting chats in the weeks ahead.”
A back injury last season kept Kearney off the pitch and although selected for the Lions, Leigh Halfpenny’s form and kicking proved bullet proof. Rested after the summer, there remains a sense that the Leinster fullback is still coming back.
He’s pleased in the sense of it’s a work in progress. A missed tackle at full gallop across the pitch to Keith Earls and a few kicks that went long last week were candidly repeated and analysed on television. But Kearney knows there’s a lot right with his game and not just claiming high ball.
“I was pretty happy with it,” he says of the game at Liberty Stadium. “I think it was one of my best performances coming back to date. My first few games I was pretty solid but had a couple of one-off pretty big blunders that would dampen the overall look of it.
“My aim and one goal has always been to be consistent and as solid as I can and make sure the 14 guys in front of me just get that sense of security . . . solidity is always my primary goal.”
Matt O’Connor has introduced a new play book so Gopperth and Kirchner are not alone in boning up on the new systems. Leinster are emphasising defensive patterns. It’s not the first love of a running back but he’s too prudent and alive to its importance to contemplate playing the rebellious pupil.
“On behalf of the backs, we all love attack,” says Kearney. “It’s the way we were brought up and probably why we play the game. We want to win games. So you have to do whatever it takes to get you to that position.”
At home to Castres should test that.