Dave Kearney making strides towards Ireland return
Leinster stalwart winger fit again and keen to target a return to Ireland squad
Dave Kearney scores a try against Toulouse during the Heineken Champions Cup clash at the RDS last month. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Too often he has dragged himself through the rag and bone yard of the Leinster medical ward. Today Dave Kearney could be forgiven for sounding weary, hard bitten and tested. He could feel that too much time has passed him by or that for too long he has been out of the coach’s primary field of vision.
Not at all. In these spring days there is optimism, the sense of a kind of re-emergence for the younger brother.
“A tough couple of years,” he calls it. “There’s no other way to put it.”
So it has been. Injury, bad timing and squad rotations in Leinster have seen to that. But a player once at the forefront of Joe Schmidt’s thinking is again making gains. Kearney is daring to think of international rugby. Yes, even the Six Nations and the World Cup. Why would he not?
“Yeah, I had a chat [with Joe Schmidt] before the squad was announced,” he says. “He was really happy with my progress over the last couple of months. I think the big thing for him, similar to the trend over the last few months, was I need to be getting game time at that level, consistently, which I probably didn’t have before that.
“A goal of mine is, if things go well for me, I can get back in to the Six Nations squad. There’s a World Cup then in September which is definitely still a goal of mine.”
Progress this season has been steady improvement in the right direction. He played with Leinster once in August, September, October and November. He then played twice in December and twice in January. Importantly this year’s runs were in the two European Cup ties against Toulouse and Wasps.
“The toughest part for me the last few years has just been getting consistent game time. I’d get back fit, have a couple of games and pick up another knock and be out for another few weeks. Stuff like that just kept adding up.
“Once you get into the team you need to be playing well consistently, back up performances, which I was finding difficult to do. But this season has been good for me so far. I’ve enjoyed it, which is important for me, and I’ve been getting back-to-back minutes.
The Toulouse and Wasps games were important as they were the first back-to-back matches Kearney played in this season. He did line out in back-to-back PRO14 games but they were ones that were three weeks apart with Champions Cup matches in between.
“After getting those two games under my belt, at Europe level, it definitely gave me a lot of confidence. Like you said, it’s probably my first back-to-back at a high level. It has done a lot for me. Just to show the coaches that I feel I’m obviously good enough to play at that level. I’ve done it before. Just to remind them that I can do it. It was a good opportunity to do that.”
He hasn’t been looking in on the Irish set-up for some time but Schmidt has never been that far away from Kearney. It was Schmidt who started the 29-year-old on the right wing against Canada in the first match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. He didn’t play in the second match against Romania but was back again on the left wing for Ireland’s 19-9 win over Italy in the Olympic Stadium in London.
Kearney also started on the left wing in Ireland’s two final World Cup games in The Principality Stadium, Cardiff against France and Argentina. Four out of five starts. That is Schmidt love.
It has never been about Kearney not having ability. Combative, brave, good in the air and with a competitive mind he will never let a team down. His eye-catching try against Toulouse in the RDS would have drawn the right kind of attention too. The message there is if Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have faith in him, it is a short leap for Schmidt to think so too.
“It had been a while since I got that feeling of...being happy, playing, and putting in a good performance with the other 22 lads in the room,” he says. “I guess I did enjoy it.”
It is now over two years since he won the last of his 17 caps. But two matches into this year’s Six Nations seems as good a place as any for him to start again.
“It’s happened to me before where I’ve been called in late to camp or I’ve been on the receiving end of an injury and had to bow out,” he says. “It always happens. It’s definitely still in the back of my head.”