Rob Kearney is fit, focused and ready to fight for Ireland future
Veteran fullback has proven his worth over a storied career but is far from finished yet
Rob Kearney is tackled by Scotland’s Rob Harley during the Six Nations victory at Murrayfield in Edinburgh. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
It wasn’t the first time that he had found himself sweating over the past two weeks, albeit on a couple of occasions it had nothing to do with exercise.
A thigh injury meant rehabilitating at Leinster while an Irish squad headed for a pre-Six Nations Championship training camp in Portugal. The 32-year-old was pencilled in for a Guinness Pro14 match against the Scarlets at the RDS, an opportunity to establish his fitness ahead of Ireland’s opening game of the tournament against England.
It didn’t go according to plan. He missed a couple of one-on-one tackles in the backfield and then as he admitted: “the third one I just got gassed on the outside; that was just poor”. Kearney had picked up a knock the day before the game and it preyed on his mind more than he anticipated.
It was a simple equation: play the Pro14 game or abandon hope of being involved in the first two rounds of the Six Nations. A player plays. As the most recent reference point from a competitive perspective it couldn’t have been much worse and when compounded with his absence from the Portugal camp, the outlook was bleak.
He explained: “When you miss out on a big week of preparation like that, I knew I was going to be on the back foot. Then, I came in on the Monday of the English week and the lads had prepped that whole week together. I was chasing everything a little bit. By the time, Tuesday came around, I had a fair idea.”
It was time to talk to Joe or rather the other way round. They had “a good chat” on the morning of the England team selection.
Robbie Henshaw was handed the number 15 jersey and for Kearney it inspired an age old conflict; wanting the team to win, friends and teammates to do well, but not too well.
The onus is often on the player who is omitted to be the more selfless in the week leading up to a game, to remove any awkwardness and to assist in whatever fashion is required.
He spent time with Henshaw.
I want to be on the team; if I want to be picked on the team I’ll have to be the best fullback out of everyone else
“Yeah, we had good chats; myself and Robbie would be pretty close. It was a tricky one because I did want him to do well, but not too well.
“At the same time, you feel a little bit of a responsibility to help him out too, particularly as he hadn’t played there in so long. I did try to help him out a little bit and we went through some of the video stuff during the week.
“But, at the same time, when Saturday came around, I didn’t want him to shoot it out of the park,” he smiled.
“If we won the game and Robbie is starting, you’re on the back foot then. He’s the man in possession of the jersey. You do sort of bank on what you’ve done for the team over the last 18 months.
“You know, November and last year was one of my best years in an Irish jersey for a long time. You do bank on that coming into play a little bit too.
“But, when you’re on your couch at home watching on TV you’re pretty helpless. So, of course you want the team to win and you want your mates to go well but you have to be a little bit selfish about it as well in terms of your own future.
“I want to be on the team; if I want to be picked on the team I’ll have to be the best fullback out of everyone else. Ultimately that’s what you’re hoping comes out in the game.”
Kearney understands the contingency process for the Rugby World Cup in Japan, that versatility is a prized asset in a squad limited to 31-players. Fullback falls within that remit and establishing a player’s bona fides to discharge the role in Kearney’s absence must be substantiated by proof in the Test arena.
Jordan Larmour and Henshaw have been called to audition recently, ostensibly for the role of understudy, because Kearney’s form for Ireland has been largely and consistently excellent for the last 18-months. He knows that his presence in the green 15 jersey polarises opinion, has done for quite some time.
He admitted: “The debate has been going around for a long time and it’s just part of my make-up now in terms of preparing for games. I might not agree with it but that’s the way it is and that’s the way it has been. So I just get on with it.”
Restored to the team for the victory over Scotland in Murrayfield he produced an excellent performance and there was a measure of satisfaction but his focus is on the next game and nothing else, at least on the pitch. Off it he is in contract – he is up at the end of the Rugby World Cup – negotiations.
“I’m trying to get it all done now in the next four to six weeks. Obviously, it’s not ideal timing in the middle of the Six Nations but that’s just where we’re at, at the moment. I’m going to finish out the season, definitely, after the World Cup. So it’s just a matter of trying to get some plans in place in the next four to six weeks or so.”
He is not averse to going abroad but one suspects he’d prefer to stay; the appeal of the IRFU’s player management program broadens as a player ages.
Kearney understands the fickle nature of sport, of form, of injuries but for now he’s happy, healthy and wants to play on. Whoever wants the Irish 15 jersey will have to come and take it; friend or foe.