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Rob Kearney: ‘Injuries? They test your love of the game’

Leinster full-back believes he still has plenty to offer, despite long list of recent setbacks

Rob Kearney: “It’s all about playing. When you are missing out on that buzz and the adrenalin every single week, that is the hardest part.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Injuries are an inevitable consequence of playing professional rugby, and never more so than in the modern era. Yet Rob Kearney appears to not only have had his share, but a few others as well. He’s been through the mill and back again, and just when he thought he was in line for a run of games, he was struck down again.

It has tested his resolve and, Kearney admits, even his love for the game, especially in the early stages of each period of rehabilitation. But it’s that love of playing games at the weekend which sustains him, and keeps him motivated to work his way back to fitness every time.

Last season he suffered a broken bone in his ankle, a knee injury and finally a torn bicep, which he somehow played with in Ireland’s games against France and Wales, before undergoing surgery. That ruled him out of the finale against England and ended his season prematurely.

Then, two games into his latest comeback against the Cardiff Blues a fortnight ago, he tore his hamstring.

“My leg got stuck in the ground and I got nudged and my whole body buckled forward a little bit. So there was an incident but there’s no smoke without fire. I wasn’t feeling superb during the week and I was complaining of a little bit of hamstring soreness so it was probably a combo of the two.”

The worst part is the days immediately after the injury, and facing into another period of recovery. “You’re just fed up. You go through everything that happened the last few years. I was looking forward to getting away to South Africa for a couple of weeks and having a bit of craic with the lads and getting a few more games under the belt. Five days later you’re home on your own with three or four other lads rehabbing another injury.”

Spell on the sidelines

He estimates that his latest spell on the sidelines will require another four to five weeks, which could, at a push, see him in the frame for either of Leinster’s European Champions Cup games at home to Montpellier or away to Glasgow.

Kearney had been plagued by injuries related to a lower back problem, which led to him having surgery six years ago. “It’s part of the problem, yes. I had back surgery. There is so much going on. The annoying thing for me is that my hamstrings are pretty strong. I have one of the strongest sets of hamstrings in the club.”

“Two years ago, I had four in the one season. They weren’t strong enough, so I strengthened them up. I didn’t have one hamstring injury last year, even an incident or a tightening. It was brilliant. I just picked up three bad enough rugby injuries. You accept those because it is part of the game.”

“I broke a small bone in my ankle, I ruptured by PCL and my knee, both on the left side. Then what happens is your running mechanics start to be altered and you don’t move exactly like you did beforehand. You couple that with another bad knee incident, a surgery I had back in 2011 and hip trouble and your lower back. It all leads to ensuring I don’t run as good as I used to, I suppose. There are so many different intricate things I need to stay on top of on a daily basis. If you lose those four for a month or two, you just go back into old habits.”

Were his career starting now, with the advances in modern sports science since he made his Leinster debut 13 seasons ago in the first of 25 competitive appearances in that campaign, he reckons he may have avoided some of the injuries.

“It’s hard to say. I have been unfortunate over the last few years. Last year my knee landed on an Astroturf pitch that had a few inches of concrete underneath. My bicep tendon was just snapped in a tackle. They are things you can’t control.

“I do think that back 13 years ago if I had the same exposure to strength and conditioning and medical support that we do now that I probably would have a lot more games under my belt but that’s where we are now.”

“I look at the younger guys coming through now and the care that they take of their bodies and the practise that is expected of them as opposed to the Michael Cheika days when you could pull up in your car at Old Belvedere, throw on your gear and off you go. Now we’re in three or four hours before a pitch session.”

Mental tests

Of course, a sequence of injuries such as those tests a player mentally as much as physically.

“It is massively a mental challenge. The ankle and the bicep and the knee you can take those because they are part and parcel of rugby. It is collision stuff. When you are in the gym 6.45 every morning, to stay on top of those things, doing 60-90 minutes before all the other lads come in, and then that happens, it is tough to take.

“It is just not training and not playing. We do it for playing and the buzz you get from it on a Saturday afternoon. That is the whole basis of our week from when we get up on a Monday morning to the Saturday. It’s all about playing. When you are missing out on that buzz and the adrenalin every single week, that is the hardest part.

“It tests your mental resilience for sure. It does test your love of the game. If you are in rehabbing the following day it shows you still want it and getting back on a Saturday afternoon shows you still have a love of doing that. It’s probably the best test of your love for the game if you can still get back up and go again.”

However low he’s been, though, the injuries have never made him contemplate packing in the game. “I haven’t been there yet. It is tough. The first week is torture, especially this season coming back at the start. I felt good and I was ready for this run of games I’ve been seeking for a couple of years now. It hasn’t happened yet. It will happen in October.”

He actually started more games for Ireland last season than with Leinster, for whom his last start prior to this season was as long ago as December. That said, he played in both games against New Zealand last autumn, and all but that finale in the Six Nations against England.

Vintage year

Most observers would consider the 2008-2009 season as something of a vintage year for Kearney, not least as that grand-slam-winning campaign culminated in his outstanding performances with the Lions in South Africa. But the player himself reckons that the 2011-12 season was his healthiest and most productive, the full-back starting all but one of 16 games for Leinster in which they retained the European Cup, and 14 games for Ireland.

“The (2009) Lions was good but then after the (European) quarter-final I got the mumps and missed the semi-final and nearly missed out on the tour. There have been a few things here and there but, in saying that, I’ve been hugely lucky to play in a huge amount of hugely important big games.

“I started all the grand slam games, all the championship games. That All Blacks game was something that I really wanted to do. I’d played them 10 or 11 times and I really wanted to be in that first team that beat them. Then I picked up a PCL injury in my knee last October and that November window was getting smaller. I have 190-odd Leinster caps and 80 international, I haven’t done badly.”

Still only 31, he believes he has plenty to offer and achieve yet. “The difficult thing for me is that I have a huge amount of faith my own ability and I would be pretty realistic about it too. I know that I still have a huge amount to give and once I believe that then that’s the only spur that I need to keep getting back and going again.”