Rob Kearney: Ireland can’t afford to fluff opening lines in Paris

‘There is always one team in round one of the Six Nations who doesn’t turn up and unfortunately that was us last year’

Scotland’s Stuart Hogg celebrates at the final whistle of last year’s Six Nations win over Ireland at Murrayfield. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Scotland’s Stuart Hogg celebrates at the final whistle of last year’s Six Nations win over Ireland at Murrayfield. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

Rob Kearney believes the opening 20 minutes in France on Saturday will be crucial to Ireland’s hopes of winning this year’s Six Nations Championship.

The Irish fullback, now back in the team training base in Kildare after a week of warm-weather training in Spain, remembers how Ireland were badly bitten by Scotland in last year’s opener with outhalf Finn Russell running the show.

This year coach Joe Schmidt and his players will focus on a strong opening against the French in Stade de France. Ireland have won only three times in France in the competition since 1952.

“There was huge optimism last year at the start of the Six Nations. Sometimes you get ahead of yourself a little bit,” said Kearney.

“There is always one team in round one of the Six Nations who doesn’t turn up and unfortunately that was us last year. It can only take 20, 40 minutes like it did in Murrayfield, so more so than this first-round game we have a massive focus on the first 20, 30 minutes and that is all we are thinking about.”

Leinster’s recent win in the Champions Cup over Montpellier will remove a sense of French invulnerability, although, club and international rugby are entirely different beasts.

Kearney and Rory Best are the two players in the current squad who have experienced a Grand Slam win in 2009. Jamie Heaslip is not currently in the squad as he is recovering from a back injury, while Tommy Bowe was left out and is retiring at the end of the season.

“I think it’s a different animal altogether,” said Kearney of the club scene. “I think it is important that guys have won in France, be it at provincial level or national level. I think it is a difficult thing to do and this national team has done it over the last 40 odd years, I think only three times.

“It is a very difficult place to go and win. If you have had a small taste of success of winning in France it probably does give you a little bit more confidence going over there.”

Kearney played his first Six Nations Championship in 2008 and has become used to the threats around him for the shirt.

Jordan Larmour has not been far from most people’s lips but Kearney understands the dynamic. Simon Zebo, Andrew Conway, Jared Payne and even Joey Carbery are among several names of current players that have had a go at 15.

“I just think he’s a flat-out winger . . . ,” jokes Kearney of Larmour. “If only . . . I suppose throughout my whole career I’ve always been in some pretty heavy battles with a lot of 15s. I could list them: Felix [Jones], Lukey [Fitzgerald], Geordan Murphy, Girvan [Dempsey] and then Zeebs [Simon Zebo] over the last few years.

“There’s always been a lot of really good players vying for the jersey.

“I’ve been as impressed as anyone else at some of the stuff he [Larmour] has done over the last couple of months and it’s a good reward for him to be called into the Six Nations squad.”

At 31, Kearney’s body is healthy, which is the most important determining factor going into a tournament. He has played eight of the last nine games, so confidence is not going to be an issue.

“I’d notice over the last couple of years, my body and how I’m feeling determines a huge part of how I’m playing,” he says.

“Touch wood. I’ve played eight of the last nine games on the bounce now, which is pretty unusual for me over the last few years.

“When my body’s in a good place, mentally I’m enjoying the rugby and then you can start putting a bit of form together. And when you’re in that position, if you’ve guys coming up behind you, it’s good and it definitely spurs you on and has done over the last couple of months.”

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