Rob Kearney feeling the heat, but knows the score
Ireland fullback wary of threat posed by on-form Scotland side at Murrayfield
Rob Kearney was Ireland leading ball carrier against New Zealand at Soldier Field, Chicago, last November. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho.
People grow restless with the same names and faces, and as Kearney also acknowledges, there are now probably more viable options for Ireland at number 15 than in his 11 seasons in and around the team.
A litany of injuries, be they lower back, hamstring, knee, ankle or head, have contributed to a fitful couple of years in and out of both the Leinster and Irish teams as well.
Indeed, since the start of last season, despite being the de facto first choice, Kearney has worn that 15 jersey in nine of Ireland’s last 21 games.
Simon Zebo has become an increasingly effective operator at fullback for both Munster and Ireland and, aside from having effectively made the transition from wing to 15 for his province, he has also started there in seven of those Irish Tests.
Even without the injured Jared Payne, who started at fullback in the first two Tests against South Africa, and the retirement of Felix Jones, who started the first World Cup warm-up match away to Wales, Tiernan O’Halloran has become a more frequent member of the squad as well as starting the third Test in South Africa and the November win over Canada.
Even Keith Earls, replacing O’Halloran in that third Test, and Joey Carbery, after Andrew Trimble joined Kearney on the sidelines in the first-half of Ireland’s win over Australia, also spent a half there.
Yet, when fit and well, Kearney clearly remains first-choice fullback in Joe Schmidt’s mind, not least as despite still only being 30 he has 72 Test caps to go with his 185 games for Leinster.
Resuming the season looking fitter and sharper, Kearney earned his place in the win over the All Blacks in Chicago, when also admitting his place was under scrutiny.
He was Ireland’s leading carrier that day, with 11 carries for 56 metres, beating four defenders and making the line break for CJ Stander’s try, as well as his typically strong aerial work, albeit there were, like several others, a couple of missed tackles.
Kearney also started the ensuing home games, when lasting only 12 minutes before his head collided with Israel Folau’s knee, but he has started only one game since then, in Leinster’s handsome win away to Northampton.
Again, Kearney looked very sharp, making the line-break and try-scoring inside pass to Garry Ringrose, before an ankle injury forced his departure early in the second-half.
That also ruled him out for four games, before having to be content with a place on the bench in Leinster’s Champions Cup games at home to Montpellier and away to Castres, which he admits was frustrating if understandable.
“I think the difficult thing for me was I half expected it. The team was going so well, the back three were playing out of their skin. For that first week back for the Montpellier game I hadn’t trained until the Monday so there was a bit of uncertainty about just how much I would be able to get through. Thankfully for me I came on at 45 minutes and 35 minutes in both games so I got a fair bit of game-time. Had it not been that case it probably would have been a lot more frustrating.
“I still got a fair bit of game time, the body is in a good place, we qualified for a home quarter-final, so I am leaving Leinster in a pretty positive frame of mind. Obviously I would have liked a bit more game time coming in but it is a long time since I have had perfect preparation coming into a Six Nations game and it is something I am used to now.”
Indeed, Kearney has long since become sanguine about such matters as being notionally 100 per cent match fit.
“No, you don’t get perfect at it, you only just get better at managing and dealing with it. There have been years gone by where I’ve been freaked out about not having the perfect full preparation and not having the three or four full 80 minutes leading up into and it is wasted energy. I can only do what I do and prepare now as best that I can. Like I say, I have been in a lot worse places coming into the start of a game.”
That said, Ireland’s injury profile is, collectively, quite healthy. Schmidt is hopeful that Jared Payne may recover from the kidney injury he suffered against Australia at some point in the tournament, as should Joey Carbery, although the hamstrung Sean Cronin has been ruled out for the duration, while Andrew Conway (groin) is the only absentee this week in their Carton House base from the original 40-man squad.
Sean O’Brien and Keith Earls returned to full training on Monday according to new team manager Paul Dean, while Johnny Sexton will do so on Tuesday.
While all of this added to the squad’s confidence, Kearney added the rider: “I think what’s different this year to other years is the quality of the opposition is so strong. And if everyone in the room picked their one to six in terms of where we’ll be in two months’ time, there would be a huge amount of variation on it. So I think it’s really important not to in anyway get ahead of ourselves.
“Yeah there’s massive optimism and real excitement, but there’s quite an element of fear as well in terms of going away to Murrayfield against a strong Scotland team at the moment,” said Kearney, who described this as the best Scottish team in quite some time.
“A lot of their individuals are playing as well as they’ve ever done, and their club teams are really strong, too. So you take all of that together and it makes Murrayfield a much tougher place to go.
“It’s never good to be complacent and I think the opposite of that is fearing the opposition. It’s meant in a fully respectful way to Scotland in terms of where they are at the moment and how much they’ve improved over the last 12 to 18 months.”