Durable duo: Kearney and Best at heart of Ireland’s success
Phenomenal feat by fullback who started all 19 matches in four successful campaigns
Rob Kearney is tackled by Scotland’s Blair Kinghorn: The fullback has played a key role in four championship wins plus a Grand Slam. Photograph: Tom Honan.
As the only survivors from the 2009 Grand Slam squad, these two have also been ever-presents in all three ensuing titles since 2014. In Kearney’s case, he has started all 19 matches in those four campaigns, while the current Irish captain has also played in all of them, having been a replacement in four of the five games in 2009.
It is a phenomenal achievement by Kearney when you think of it. Other full-backs have come and gone, challenging him and replacing him when he’s been injured, but the 31-year-old Leinster and Lions fall-back keeps coming back and is still standing. In the 2014 and 2015 titles, Kearney played every minute.
He was in line to repeat that achievement until last Saturday, when Jordan Larmour was brought on to replace him in the 75th minute, although he didn’t look too upset as some of his team-mates ribbed him for his Man of the Match award.
In any event, he and Best now stand within one more win of becoming the only two players in the history of Irish rugby to have played a part in two Grand Slams, having been ever-presents in both as well as two intervening title successes.
The 2009 vintage are rightly considered relative legends of Irish rugby, having achieved something last realised in 1948, and especially when one factors in the five Heineken Cups won by the core of the squad with Munster and Leinster. It’s assuredly something to do with the sheer mystique of the Grand Slam, all the more so for a country that has won so few of them. Yet as Brian O’Driscoll and others would admit, until then they’d somewhat underachieved at Test level.
That Kearney and Best are the only surviving players from the 2009 Slam also shows how much this current team has been rebuilt. There were a few links with the class of 2009 in both 2014 and 2015, with Paul O’Connell and Jamie Heaslip all being three-time champions, and O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald were all two-time champions.
It was felt that the era following O’Driscoll, O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara et al would be hard to emulate, but if anything the achievement of this current generation is even greater. It is certainly more consistent.
One can also throw in an historic first win over the All Blacks, as well as a win away to South Africa, and beating Australia at home. This has all been achieved under Joe Schmidt, whose teams have now won eight trophies in nine seasons when one factors in a French Championship, two Heineken Cups, a European Challenge Cup and a Pro12 with Clermont and Leinster.
In any event, were all of this to be augmented by a Grand Slam in the grandest of manners, beating the back-to-back champions England in their Twickenham fortress, the achievements of the current crew would be hard to match. Even when compared to the Jackie Kyle generation which won the Grand Slam and two titles from 1948 to 1951.
Of the current squad, 11 players have featured in all three campaigns, and aside from Best and Kearney, it comes as no surprise that the other player to have started all 14 games to date over the course of these last three title wins in five years has been Conor Murray.
Underlining his relatively understated value, Devin Toner has also been an ever-present in the three campaigns, starting in all five games of the 2014 and 2015 titles, and, having been a replacement in Paris, the last three home wins.
The two other ever-presents are Jack McGrath, who has started ten and been a replacement in four others, and Sean Cronin, who has appeared off the bench in each of the 14 games.
Johnny Sexton and Peter O’Mahony (who has only missed the Italy game in 2014) have started all but one. Sexton was ruled out of the 2015 opening win away to Italy when completing a ten-week concussion lay-off, before returning as he’d never been away a week later and landing five penalties out of five in the 18-11 win over France at the Aviva Stadium. That Murray and Sexton have been in many ways the heartbeat of these three titles is entirely fitting.
Cian Healy has also played in 13 of the 14 games, and started nine of them, while Iain Henderson has played in a dozen and by dint of his impressive cameo off the bench last Saturday, Jordi Murphy has also appeared in all three title campaigns.
Much of it can be down to timing and luck. One thinks of Josh van der Flier, Robbie Henshaw and Chris Farrell in this campaign, and some camera shots this weekend reminded us of some other hard luck stories. The sight of Sean O’Brien removing his headband and shaking his head in disbelief in picking up another injury in his comeback game for Leinster in Parc Y Scarlets was one of them.
No one doubts his world-class status. Two significant Lions tours were proof of that, and he also played a significant role in the 2015 title, not least when scoring two crucial tries in that win over Scotland on the Super Saturday finale in Murrayfield. However, he only broke into the team in 2009-10, the season after the Slam, and missed the 2014 title through injury, which looks like his fate again.
Simon Zebo could be seen smiling as ever in the stands at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, but although he started the first four games of the 2015 triumph, he was then replaced by Luke Fitzgerald for that final game in Murrayfield.
But he, like Schmidt and everyone else, would have been thrilled above others for Keith Earls last Saturday, as the Munster flyer finally won some silverware.
Now comes one shot at the big one.
Players with 4 titles from 2009, ’14, ’15, ’18.
Rob Kearney. Played 19.
Rory Best. Played 15 +4 Rep.
Players with 3 titles from 2014, ’15 and ’18.
Rob Kearney. Played 14.
Conor Murray. Played 14.
Rory Best. Played 14.
Devin Toner. Played 13 +1 Rep.
Jack McGrath. Played 10 +4 Rep.
Sean Cronin. Played 0 + 14 Rep.
Johnny Sexton. Played 13.
Cian Healy. Played 9 +4 Rep.
Peter O’Mahony. Played 13.
Iain Henderson. Played 3 + 9 Rep.
Jordi Murphy. Played 2 + 7 Rep.