Kearney back on the crest of a wave - and loving every minute

 

Rob Kearney was the forgotten man when he was out injured, and he didn’t enjoy it one bit, writes GERRY THORNLEY

Not for the first time under either Michael Cheika or Joe Schmidt, Leinster are doing their bit for Ireland’s forthcoming Six Nations campaign. Along with the continuing good form of so many Irish front-liners such as Jonny Sexton and the rejuvenation of Luke Fitzgerald, there’s the rebirth of Rob Kearney into something more, even, than the player who became the standout starting Lions’ full-back three summers ago.

Where many a coach, unfettered by outside national concerns or even ham-fisted diktats, would have been entitled to continue playing Isa Nacewa at fullback, Schmidt has started Kearney there in all seven of his starts since the World Cup, and Kearney is flourishing.

With his Gaelic football-honed skills, few were better equipped to cope with the Springboks’ aerial bombardment than Kearney. However, with the increased emphasis on keeping the ball in hand, Kearney has almost reinvented himself since his return from a nine-month injury-enforced sabbatical. His greater awareness in counter-attacking is seeing him link more with team-mates, although as he points out, this is a unit skill as much as it is down to the fullback, and he is also linking better with his sharp intrusions into the line.

There was a portent of things to come on his seasonal reappearance with Leinster away to Edinburgh in late October with his around-the-corner try-scoring pass to Leo Auva’a over in the corner, but it was the handsome home win over Bath which demonstrated his sharper strike power.

Aside from his close-range try from Eoin Reddan’s popped pass, Kearney gave Fitzgerald both of his try-scoring passes, notably when maximising Devin Toner’s break up the middle by providing the vocal support and link, as well as the final pass for the superbly executed back-line move off lineout ball early in the second half which showcased what Schmidt’s Leinster are about better than any score this season. Last week in Cardiff, Kearney’s knife-through-butter finish up the middle and around Leigh Halfpenny constituted his third try in his last four starts.

It was always likely that such a naturally talented athlete and clever bloke would use his enforced lay-off to come back a better player, and so it is proving. The “transition” in the game happened during his time away.

“Kicking and high field catching were the be all and end all of the game and then it changed and I got injured. I suppose I was sort of still remembered just as the fullback who could catch and kick, which was kind of frustrating when you’re out injured and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

He cites Schmidt’s coaching and being surrounded by quality players in a winning team as the key ingredients. So it is that, in Schmidt’s unforgiving Leinster environment, Kearney is quick to remind you of the break he made away to Bath when not giving the try-scoring pass to Nacewa on his outside.

“And a bigger perfectionist you will not meet,” he smiled knowingly of his head coach. “Sometimes it can be a little bit annoying because you know you’re always getting picked up on for the one thing you didn’t do but then that’s what makes you a better player, isn’t it? And that level of, I suppose, humility and relentlessness that you want as a team to achieve and keep being better than whoever is in second place.”

The presence of Nacewa simply demanded that Kearney become a more complete player. Kearney recently made a sharp if light-hearted comment suggesting he is not always judged by the same criteria but he stresses: “You always love playing with the best players. It does so much for your own game and ultimately that’s what you want. You’re obviously studying the fellah who is in your position a huge amount as well. It was a mixed year because it was nice to have a break and I sort of view it, touch wood, as a mid-career break where everyone sort of needs one to step back and, get perspective and live life like a normal person. It wasn’t the whole rugby bubble.”

Like any injured player in the stands, he felt on the fringes at best watching last season’s Euro success. “I really genuinely wanted them to win everything but at the same time it’s difficult watching them win everything because we all know how fickle the game is and in the blink of an eye you are the forgotten man. There is no sense of resentment or bitterness, but it’s only natural to feel left out a little bit.”

Kearney had worsened the knee by playing in pain against New Zealand a fortnight after playing against South Africa in November 2010 and reveals that the surgeon admitted to him later that he had never seen a worse injury of its type.

Initially Kearney was on crutches for eight weeks, which was during one of Ireland’s arctic spells of snow and ice. “I couldn’t leave home which was miserable and I couldn’t train a huge amount either,” he said. But it doesn’t come as a surprise that Kearney also used his sabbatical to do more than fine-tune his game. He took a Masters in Business in college for two nights a week, which helped fill in the many hours away from rugby and which he is finishing this year, and went to Ethiopia with Concern, the week of his nine-month recuperation which made the most lasting impression on him.

“It’s just that it’s so different. You open your eyes to something you’ve never seen before. It made me realise I live in a bubble within a bubble! So it’s good to come out of that comfort zone and experience how the other side of the world works and just how they’re so happy having nothing. And here’s me going out with a little knee injury. I can’t play a bit of sport,” he says, mocking himself with a wry smile.

“I wanted to look back knowing that I’d done something rather than sitting at home playing computer games for three hours every day. It’s good to focus on something else and I suppose (have) a bit of ambition as well that you need to transfer into another aspect of life. So it was good but I don’t want another one of them,” he says with another wry smile.

A thoughtful, engaging and intelligent lad, Kearney admits the impression he deliberately gives off on match days of a self-confident player is in part because he believes, à la a goalkeeper in football, it goes with the demands of his position. But he also conceded it isn’t always accurate, and certainly wasn’t on the day of his comeback last August in the first of the World Cup warm-up matches in Murrayfield.

Having come through that, he tore his groin the following week against France – “The furthest thing from what I needed” – thereby missing the two England games and the World Cup opener against the USA, which meant he had, as he puts it, 90 minutes’ rugby in nine months before the Eden Park rendezvous with Australia. “I was unbelievably nervous. I didn’t know what way it was going to go but you’re playing with such good players around you and it makes those things a little bit easier.

“It’s often the first thing in the game, if that goes well you’re flying, but that game, it didn’t start off so well,” he recalls ruefully. “I took Kurtley Beale, a clothes-line (tackle) and then he won a ball off me in the air.” But Kearney then chased a kick to win a ball above Beale. “Which I needed, big time, for myself and then after that it was fine. Again they didn’t kick very much to us. They tried to play a lot of ball, which probably cost them the game.”

He readily describes the quarter-final defeat to Wales as “the worst ever”, partly because, “without being in any way disrespectful to them, they’re a home nation that you play regularly and beat regularly so that’s tougher to take. But they played bloody well and I think people forget that a little bit. We were probably quite a bit below our best and they were at their best.”

After his long lay-off, he was itching to get back playing for Leinster. It had, he points out, been over 12 months since he’d played for his province, and he’s yet to experience a defeat. “We still have more to give. I’d agree, but then that’s a sign of a good team when you’re winning with more to give, isn’t it?”

As European champions, Leinster are the hunted ones this season. “That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Because you expect things, and when you are down in a game you expect to come back and win it, and we all know sport is so mental, isn’t it? That what goes on inside your head and a team’s philosophy and culture, it’s those things that make champions.”

Contrary, perhaps, to an image of someone who has everything going for him, Kearney uses the word “humility” regularly, particularly in a team ethic, stressing that once a team loses they are liable to be mugged – tomorrow in Firhill having all the ingredients for a classic mugging in waiting.

“I’m properly nervous about this weekend against Glasgow. They don’t lose very much at home and you have those teams who don’t travel well away but when they play at home they’re bloody good and they’re hard to beat. They will be a million miles away from the team at the RDS but everyone is aware of that. No one is getting carried away.”

Besides, the memory of that sabbatical hasn’t gone away. “The amount of times I sat in the stand feeling sorry for myself, watching on and you just come back and you have that level of appreciation. Because as much as we all try not to, you do take things for granted, sometimes I was taking it for granted. It’s the old cliché, you don’t know what you have till you lose it and when all of a sudden I wasn’t playing for six, seven months it was horrific.

“Rugby is brilliant when it’s going well and it can be the worst place when it’s down. So when you’re riding the crest of the wave you want to be involved every week. You want to keep riding it.”