‘I don’t miss playing at all’: Rob Kearney on punditry and life after rugby

Rob Kearney on finishing his career on the pitch: 'I’m not looking at games and wishing I was out there.' Photograph: Alan Betson
After recently retiring from professional rugby, Rob Kearney doesn’t miss getting hit – we can all relate to that. It’s what happens next that’s trickier

There is no more ridiculous life than that of an elite professional sportsperson. When you think about it – not that you would and certainly not that you should, but if you did – it has no analogue in the real world. There’s no equivalent way of life, nothing to make the everyday Joe relate.

You spend your youth fixated on what ought to be a completely impossible goal. That thing that other kids your age dream about isn’t some far-off, misty-eyed fable; it becomes your everyday reality. By the start of your 20s, you’ve already done the thing that will be in the first line of your obituary when the time comes. By the start of your 30s, the 20-year-old kid across the dressing room is eyeing up your locker.

And then, when you’re 35 or so (if you’re lucky enough to last that long), it’s over. You wake up one morning and you have nowhere to go and no-one to be. Thanks for everything, champ. Have a nice life.

Rob Kearney played his final game of professional rugby last June. It was for Australian side Western Force against Auckland Blues in Eden Park, New Zealand, and his last act as a player was to run in a late try. He had intended finishing up a few months later but the Barbarians game that was supposed to be his swansong got torpedoed at the last minute by a coronavirus outbreak. So that was that, 16 years snuffed out like an altar candle.

Photograph: Alan Betson
Rob Kearney: 'When you get older, the body starts to give out on you a bit more and to slow down.' Photograph: Alan Betson

“I don’t miss playing at all,” he says now. “Which is a really good thing to be able to say. I’m not looking at games and wishing I was out there. Of course there are times, like beating New Zealand and a couple of the big wins, where you’d be saying, ‘Oh, I’d love that’.

“But as a whole, watching on, I have no real urge still be out there or jealousy of the people who are out there. It’s a great mindframe to be in when you do finish up, to know it was on your terms and that you don’t crave that any more.”

All of which is fine, as it goes. In truth, rugby lends itself to that sort of satisfaction more readily than other sports for the simple reason that no more rugby means no more – and this is a technical term from deep in the heart of the game – no more getting the s**t beaten out of you. Never underestimate the pleasure the body derives from not being struck with brute force on a regular basis.

'The thing with sport is that you know it’s what you want. It’s very simple that way. You throw yourself into it with everything you have because you know who you are'

“It’s probably the biggest part, really,” Kearney says. “When you get older, the body starts to give out on you a bit more and to slow down. What I found hardest towards the end was the fact that as the body started to slow down, your mind really worked faster. So you had these two parallel universes almost going in opposite directions and you have this real frustration because you can’t marry them up like you used to.

“You definitely have to be in a really specific mindset and mindframe to take contact on a regular basis and for the physical nature of the game. You step out of that for a few months and then you look on at lads getting smashed up and you say, ‘Oof, I don’t really fancy that any more’.

“So the physical component of it is obviously a big element of it. You look at soccer players and though their body is starting to wane on them, they still have the touch and the ability to read the game to be able to operate at a high enough level. You can’t do that in rugby.”

Rob Kearney trainng for Leinster in 2006. Photograph: Eric Luke Staff Photographer
Rob Kearney trainng for Leinster in 2006. Photograph: Eric Luke Staff Photographer

So far, so simple. He doesn’t miss getting hit. We can all relate to that. It’s what happens next that is so much trickier to get the head around. Retiring from pro sport isn’t just a matter of changing jobs. It involves putting your whole identity through a spin cycle. For 16 years, Kearney knew exactly who he was and what he wanted. That’s gone.

Who is he now? In some ways, your guess is as good as his. He’s going to be a pundit on Virgin Sport for the Six Nations so that’s a bit of who he is. As you may be aware, he got married last month to pharmacy student Jess Reddan. “I hear you gave the whole country Covid,” I say. “Yeah, yeah, I heard that too,” he laughs. “Might not be too far from the truth!”

He has various bits of fingers in various bits of business pie here and there – a recruitment company, a skincare brand, some Dublin pubs among them. But if you sat him down and asked him what his job is, he wouldn’t have a straight answer for you, and isn’t likely to have one for a while, either.

'As a sportsman, your mindset is having targets and goals and, most of all, achieving them as quickly as possible'

“It was something I was really conscious of when I was still playing. Early on in my career and definitely towards the end of it, it was always in the back of my mind – what am I going to do when it’s over? Who am I going to become?

“The transition is difficult and it does take time. I think it is important to be patient with yourself too. You’re not going to launch into something new overnight or in six months or even in a year. You’re not going to be reconnected and find a use and a purpose and an identity that fast. It does take time. I think being patient and allowing that transition to happen slowly is important.”

Slow is not a concept most sportspeople can relate to. Slow is a luxury. Slow is anathema. Every day you treat yourself to slow is a day the opposition is getting faster. That is a bad day. Sport deals in absolutes, leaving sportspeople no choice but to do the same.

Glory days: Rob Kearney scores a try during the Guinness Summer Series match between Ireland and Wales at Aviva Stadium in 2019. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty
Glory days: Rob Kearney scores a try during the Guinness Summer Series match between Ireland and Wales at Aviva Stadium in 2019. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty

As a consequence, adjusting to the real world isn’t straightforward. Life is messy. Life is grey areas. Life is trying things out for size and wearing different hats until you find one that fits. Navigating all that means unlearning a lot of what made you who you were.

“As a sportsman, your mindset is having targets and goals and, most of all, achieving them as quickly as possible,” Kearney says. “I need to get into the team. I need to play for Ireland. I need to get to 50 caps. I need to get to 100 caps. I need to do it all immediately.

“So I think that has been the most telling mindset shift that I have had to make since retirement; it’s going to be very different to what your sports career was. You can’t try and slide into something as quickly as possible because if you do, you can make mistakes very easily. The thing with sport is that you know it’s what you want. It’s very simple that way. You throw yourself into it with everything you have because you know who you are.

“Whereas now, you can throw yourself into something and realise six months, a year or even two years down the line that this isn’t for you. And then you have to start again and you try something else and without even really realising it, two or three years have passed and you’ve shifted around trying three or four different things and you can become quite lost doing that.”

“Some guys have transitioned out of the game really quickly, where they’ve gone straight into a new job because they’ve needed the structure, they’ve needed to launch right into something. I have been very conscious of the fact that I came straight out of school into professional rugby when I was 19. I have known nothing else.

Sky Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand 12/6/2021Blues vs Western ForceWestern Force's Rob Kearney is tackled by Hoskins Sotutu and Mark Telea of the Blues Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Photosport/Andrew Cornaga
Western Force's Rob Kearney is tackled by Hoskins Sotutu and Mark Telea of the Blues, June 2021. Photograph: INPHO/Photosport/Andrew Cornaga

“There needs to be a period of your life now that you have to try and enjoy. You have to enjoy some of the things that you missed out on. Because while I hope to go on to a new career and get my teeth stuck into that, this could be a period of my life for two or three years where I’m not tied down to something every day. When I do get into a new phase of my life, it may not be as easy to get into that groove of really not doing a huge amount.”

So what you’re saying, basically Rob, is that you’re going to be a full-time celebrity for the next few years? “Oh yeah, pretty much,” he laughs. “I’ll be in the jungle, I’ll be on every reality show, anything that’s going, that will be me.” (Note to TV talent bookers: This Is A Joke. Probably.)

'In five or seven years’ time, I won’t have the same insight as somebody new coming out'

For now, he will fill the screens for the next few weeks as Ireland take their annual swing at the Six Nations. The player-turned-pundit is a curious balancing act. You have to show you’re close enough to the action to have particular insight into what’s going on, while portraying enough distance from your former team mates to prove that you’re not in thrall to them.

“Rugby is complicated game and so what I want to do, if I can, is give a simple insight into it,” he says. “I feel sometimes the viewer doesn’t always get a real insight into the intricacies of the game – what they’re doing and how they’ve changed it up a little bit from season to season. I think when you’re fresh out of the game, that’s one of the advantages that you do have. It changes a lot over the course of a couple of years and while I’m in this period now, just fresh out of it, I’d like to think that I have a bit more insight to give than guys who might be 10 years out of the game.

Rob Kearney training at University College Dublin. Photograph: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Rob Kearney training at University College Dublin. Photograph: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

“And likewise, in five or seven years’ time, I won’t have the same insight as somebody new coming out. Now, you can work really hard at it and you should analyse the game deeply and keep pace with the changes. That’s what the guys who are full-time pundits do, the guys who want to stay in punditry as long as they can. You can never tell the future but at this moment in time, I’m not sure if I want to still be in punditry in five years’ time.”

It can be tricky, all the same. Over the coming six weeks, some of the players in green will be close friends, old allies who were at the aforementioned wedding in December and countless nights and days besides. If they are brilliant, great. If they aren’t, he has to say so, in the full knowledge that he is saying it to a million people at a time.

“You have to be honest,” he says. “I know that. If you protect the player in any way, people will know. They can tell if you’re trying to dance around something. But it doesn’t always have to be binary. Once you’re fair and not malicious, you should be fine.”

It’s a learning process. Everything is.