Rob Kearney: We are prepared for intensity of Stade de France
Fullback says side’s focus this week will be about the first 20 minutes against Les Bleus
Dejected Ireland players walk off the pitch following their defeat during the RBS Six Nations match between France and Ireland at the Stade de France in February 2016. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
“Yeah, it does because facts are facts,” says Rob Kearney. The Irish fullback is talking about pain. The pain of loss in the public eye. The pain of being beaten. The pain of second best. So yes, at this stage the history of playing in Paris, it hurts.
The last win was in 2014, the time before that 2000 and before that 1972 in Colombes. Then no win in a 20-year barren spell reaching back to 1952, when Ireland again won in Colombes.
Paris has not been kind to Irish teams.
“The journey takes about 20 to 25 minutes from the hotel,” says Kearney.
“You go in the back [of Stade de France]. You go under the tunnel so you don’t actually see a huge amount of the fans. But it’s loud. It’s very noisy. It’s probably my favourite anthem.
“They’re all giving it holly. Sometimes you have a music DJ on the sideline. There’s just an intensity to it.
“So we’re prepared for that. It’s going to be loud and noisy and they’ll have a huge amount of emotional charge in that. That’s one of the main reasons why it’s so difficult to win.”
Kearney has become something of a sounding board for the Irish squad. At 31 years old, he has been involved in Six Nations campaigns since 2008 and unlike many of the younger players, he knows the price of most things and also their value.
“We let Finn Russell play in a dinner suit,” he quips about last year’s outing against Scotland. More hurt as the 2017 Six Nations party started without an Irish fireworks display.
Kearney is loath to fall into cliché or convenient thinking after a decade of battles on many fronts. As a player his position has seemed to come under threat as much as that of Johnny Sexton appears impregnable.
He lists the names, Girvan Dempsey, Geordan Murphy, Simon Zebo, Luke Fitzgerald, Jared Payne... a disorderly queue has been formed by the players who would like his shirt. And yet he remains.
It seems as if every backline player now can line out on the wing, at fullback and in the centre. Utility is a buzz word and in the public consciousness the image is of the mercurial multi-positioned Jordan Larmour, while Kearney has always been a fullback, which could leave a player feel under-appreciated.
“Yeah, you probably do a little bit,” he says. “It’s only human nature that we like to be appreciated as people and probably even more so as sportspeople.
“But it’s more important to me that the coach and my team-mates understand, what I bring as opposed to maybe some element of the fans. So yes to your question. But there are probably more important people to me as well.”
Donncha O’Callaghan, Peter Stringer, Jamie Heaslip and Tommy Bowe remain on the rugby horizon but for various reasons are not in contract or in the squad. Kearney and Rory Best are the boys from 2009, the Grand Slam-winning year.
Over eight or nine years there’s no surprise about the nature of transition. More is expected before the next World Cup.
But Kearney doesn’t yet feel like an old boy, that he’s just hanging in. His fitness and body in good order, threats be damned. He has played in eight out of the last nine matches.
Ready-made for the modern game, the youth have cut physiques and size, more so than he had at 21 years old. But...
“Yeah, they are big, strong and a lot more developed than some of us guys when we were younger, 10 years ago,” he says.
“You have to be. The game is more physical, there are more collisions and to get in at an early age you have to be more developed than you were 10 years ago.
“Rugby will take it out of them. We’ll see what they’re like in 10 years’ time.”
There is no talk of a Grand Slam or the World Cup, no murmuring of even a championship win.
“Mentally, our whole focus this week will be about the first 20 minutes,” he says. “Obvious question is why wasn’t that your focus last year.”
Perceptions of a weak Scotland in the first match last year against a French team that has lost its way but bristles with talent this year. If France play for lost pride and nothing else, Ireland have a match.
Jacques Brunel will at least instil that. He is a new act in France but one Ireland have seen perform in Stadio Olimpico. Brunel always had Italy geared up for confrontation and if he is of a mind in these early weeks of office to preach a simple message to France, that could be it.
“They were always very physical, the Italians, especially at home,” says Kearney. “That is one area they will be charged up. That emotion is part of the French nature. That is something he will play upon.”
“There is something about the French and the Stade de France. It [winning] has happened so few times. We are lucky enough to have a lot of guys within the group who have done it. That does make a difference.
“We would like to think we had a good November, which obviously leaves us in a good frame of mind.”
All things equal, or, almost. That could be the difference.