Keeping his head in heat of battle


SIX NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP INTERVIEW WITH ROB KEARNEY:IN THE spirit of convincing that all was hail and hearty in the Irish camp, Paddy Wallace and Rob Kearney marched yesterday from the team lunch-room smiling. The media gathered, hungry for another unexpurgated chapter on life in the front-line trenches.

The game has been playing a war of attrition with Wallace’s face while Kearney’s head is still on his shoulders – but only just. Italy’s Andrea Masi believed that by inviting a three-week ban in tackling the Irish fullback north of Alaska he would ramp up the possibilities of his team turning over Ireland. The Colosseum was not too far away. Masi’s intentions would certainly have pleased Nero.

Kearney is prompted to share every nuance of the attempted beheading. Nice welcome to Rome, Rob?

“Yeah,” he says. “It was, 45 seconds. I was just thankful that I could finish the game.”

He didn’t see the gladiator’s right arm swing across his neck but the tackle opened his eyes to the nature of combat in Stadio Flaminio and what Ireland might expect from a big nation, England, looking for a bigger game.

You were rattled, huh?

“For the first five, 10 minutes but that is the great thing about adrenaline in these games,” he says. “You brush it off and you get on with the game quickly enough. It is the same again this week. In the first 10 to 15 minutes of any Six Nations, the intensity is always massive and it is about combating that start and putting your own stamp on the rest of the game.”

The swinging arm caught him on the neck and jaw. “I was fine,” he says eager to leave the subject far behind and step into another one of the squad’s recurring themes – look ahead, not back.

Ireland coach Declan Kidney has changed many small things in the camp and one of his most subtle twists is to ensure the players stay in the moment. There is a strong argument for Kearney never wanting to remember the tackle, although the squad has been dwelling on one difficult experience – last year’s ugly defeat. They are ignoring the 43-13 win in Croke Park two years ago.

“That (Croke Park) has been mentioned a couple of times and it goes back to the historic aspect of it,” he says. “Being Irish, we are a hugely patriotic country. With those sorts of things comes a huge responsibility for ourselves. It’s important that we finish this game with the right message.

“Irish rugby has come a long way since then, provincial rugby as well. We have spoken more about remembering last year’s game in Twickenham than what happened the year before that in Croke Park. There still has to be a lot of hurt from last year when we got a good old trouncing and now is the time that we set that right.”

Kearney, like Luke Fitzgerald, Paddy Wallace, Tomás O’Leary, Brian O’Driscoll and Stephen Ferris, was not involved in Ireland’s game against England last year, while Girvan Dempsey, Shane Horgan, Gordon D’Arcy, Denis Hickie, Peter Stringer, Simon Easterby and Denis Leamy all started in Croke Park.

While the players responded to 2007 being the first time Croke Park was opened to rugby, Kidney has been spoon-feeding them thoughts that on Saturday the doors will slam shut as Lansdowne Road nears completion. Still, there is optimism and a feeling that the team is progressing.

“You could signify that game (2008 v England) as one of the lowest points in the Irish game,” says Kearney. “Along with our exit from the World Cup. There was the departure of Eddie (O’Sullivan) too. It felt as if things couldn’t get any worse. We went on the summer tour then and played a little bit better but still had two losses at the end of the day.”

While Dempsey was difficult to shift from both Leinster and Ireland, Kearney has come of age over the last six months. With Fitzgerald and latterly Jamie Heaslip he has shown willing ambition on the pitch that had all but vanished from the team. Few players in the last decade have claimed a place with such instant success.

“What is very different this Six Nations is that we feel an awful lot more a part of the team,” he says. “I do certainly. Maybe in last year’s Six Nations, I know that I felt a bit more of a passenger. That is a huge thing Declan is trying to incorporate into the squad, players having an equal right. That has certainly come through.”

Ireland smacking up on young heads on broad shoulders and you get the feeling this one could be the gateway game, past Murrayfield and to a Grand Slam finale. A Welsh colosseum. Kearney knows what to expect.