Rob Kearney interview: ‘There’s no bitterness leaving rugby. It’s been so good to me’

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Ireland’s most decorated player will play final game of his career, lining up as Barbarian

Ireland's most decorated player of all time plays his final game of rugby this afternoon. Rob Kearney will hang up his boots once and for all after playing for the Barbarians against Samoa at Twickenham in the Killick Cup.

This might not be exactly how he envisaged his farewell. His 219th and final game for Leinster was against Ulster at the end of August 2020 at an empty Aviva Stadium, after which there was his stint with Western Force in Perth.

But the lure of wearing the famous black-and-white hoops of the Barbarians will also allow his parents, Siobhán and David, to watch him play for the first time since February last year.

Well, I'm not going to wear 'plural' Clongowes socks. I'm going to wear one Clongowes and one UCD

“Along with my brother Richard and sister Sara, they’ve travelled the world supporting me for the last 15 years so to be able to play my last game in front of them and in front of a crowd close to home was a big attraction too.”


One former, retired teammate envies Kearney enjoying the Baabaas experience, which has been everything it’s cracked up to be.

“I could feel the history and prestige as soon as you got into the team rooms. It is really slick. I was a bit unsure last week just because I hadn’t played rugby in so long, but I’m delighted I’ve done it now.”

He’s been developing new friendships with Ryan Wilson, the Wallabies scrum-half Nic White and the South Africans Duane Vermeulen, Malcolm Marx and Steven Kitshoff. “They’re bang on, good boys.”

Kearney last played against the Auckland Blues at Eden Park on June 12th, which was all of 24 weeks ago, a long time for a 35-year-old. He had a chat with “Rens”, the coach Dave Rennie, on Wednesday morning.

“What are you thinking?” Rennie asked him.

“To be honest Rens, 30 minutes off the bench would do me just fine!”

Kearney admits, with wry self-deprecation: “It’s the first time in my career I’ve ever asked to be on the bench.”

He can take some comfort in knowing that the game against Ulster was his only outing in 15 months between February 2020 and May this year when making his Force debut against the Cheetahs in Perth, and he played 78 minutes that day.

Baabaas tradition permits players to wear socks of their own choosing. The same former teammate warned that if Kearney wore his Clongowes socks he’d kill him.

“Well, I’m not going to wear ‘plural’ Clongowes socks. I’m going to wear one Clongowes and one UCD.” He checked if it’s been done before and, among others, Rory Best wore one Ulster sock and one Banbridge sock when captaining the Baabaas two years ago at Twickenham against Fiji.

Future after rugby

Coming after the Force, it’s been a nice way to sign off.

“Perth was probably the nicest place in the world I’ve been to. When I finished up with Leinster there was still a part of me that didn’t want to finish completely. Then after a season down there I knew that the timing was right. But that seven months was amazing.”

He’s both nervous and excited about what lies ahead although the pandemic made for a soft rather than sudden transition from Leinster and, with a nice sense of timing, he and Jess are getting married in Clare next Friday.

I need team sport or a game, where after a couple of hours there's a winner and a loser. But I don't miss being fit

“If you’d told me that back 15 years ago that I’d be finishing my career and beginning my marriage five days later I would have told you you’re dreaming.”

As for the future, he’d like to stay involved in rugby in some capacity, and having chaired the Players Association for eight years, more the administrative side of the game.

“At the same time I’m going to be patient. It could take a year to three years before I finally find my feet with something that I’m passionate about again. Once you find the purpose, I think it’s pretty easy from there on. It’s just finding something that gets me out of bed on a Monday morning to go and chase something to try and excel at.”

He has a degree in commerce, and did an MBA in business in 2013 when he was out for a year with a knee injury. He’s involved in several businesses and one thing is certain, Kearney would never make a decision while angry or in the heat of the moment.

Kearney also scratched a longtime itch by playing some Gaelic football with Cooley Kickhams. He’ll still run and go to the gym a few times each week, although he’d rather a five-a-side, paddle tennis or squash than running for 10k.

“I need team sport or a game, where after a couple of hours there’s a winner and a loser. But I don’t miss being fit. I’ve lost about five kilos of muscle in the last six months but it’s been really nice being back in a team environment with a group of lads all having the craic. That’s the one thing that I miss.”

Being at the Aviva for Ireland’s win over the All Blacks brought that home too. He will become a fan albeit, like pretty much all retired players, knows that process may take a few years.

“But there’s no bitterness leaving the game. It’s been so good to me and I’ve gotten so much out of it.”

Decorated career

After Ireland’s win over Japan, Johnny Sexton declared his guilt about celebrating his 100th cap while noting how Cian Healy won his 100th cap and both Kearney and Fergus McFadden both signed off in empty stadia.

“It was a touch of class from Johnny and a sign of him that he always mentions other people,” says Kearney, but Kearney can still reflect on all the countless big games in which he played.

In 95 games for Ireland there were four Six Nations titles spread over 10 seasons, including two Grand Slams. He and Best were the only two players to feature in all 20 games, with Kearney the only to start them all.

He also started the breakthrough wins over the All Blacks in Chicago and at home in 2018, all three tests of the series win in Australia in 2018 and was a two-time Lions tourist, playing in all three tests in South Africa in 2009.

In 15 seasons with Leinster he won four Heineken Champions Cups, a European Challenge Cup and six Celtic League/Pro12/Pro14 titles.

Yet he probably didn’t receive the plaudits he deserved, and toward the end, like all Thirtysomethings, modern demands for the latest new thing or new kid on the block, and fatigue with the same old same old, meant Kearney copped more criticism.

“At times it did get me down and annoy me but in a perverse sort of way I almost liked it a little bit. It gave me a bit between my teeth to prove people wrong and I think that can be a really powerful tool if used in the right way.”

If there’s one regret?

“Not getting 100 caps for Ireland; 95 plus the three Lions leaves me on 98. I think I missed just over 30 games through injury with Ireland. I try to tell myself that it’s just a number but it is more than a number. It’s an unbelievably prestigious club to be in, so that really is my only regret from the game.”

That game in Lansdowne Road, the 2006 semi-final, was the day we realised something needed to change

With that in mind, perhaps the biggest transformation he’s witnessed has been the advances in diet, fitness, body awareness and recovery. Academy players are being given an education that he didn’t receive until his mid or late 20s.

“I was 19 or 20 in the Leinster gym and I was trying to do a clean jerk and that’s when I slipped a disc in my back. It’s really unlikely that that would happen to one of these kids now but that single moment caused so many hamstring strains for me during the years. That’s probably the single moment in my career that I would take back if I could.”

Changing Leinster

In this and much else, Leinster are simply unrecognisable from when he first broke into the squad in 2005-06, and he admits that nothing goaded them more than Munster’s dominance around then.

“That game in Lansdowne Road, the 2006 semi-final, was the day we realised something needed to change. We were always so envious and jealous of Munster back in those days that it was the single biggest driver for the club to be where they are now.”

He credits Michael Cheika for instigating the revolution and Joe Schmidt for advancing it, showing such faith in him, giving him a clear understanding of what he wanted and making him a better player. Schmidt was his most influential coach, "without a doubt", and he lauds "the strong dynamic" between Stuart Lancaster and Leo Cullen.

As he revealed in his biography No Hiding, Kearney’s career effectively ended in a two-minute telephone conversation with Andy Farrell, and when pushed admits that disappointed him.

“But you can get very precious in these situations and I know that sport is a ruthless game. A face-to-face and a cup of coffee would have gone a long way but I get it that head coaches are busy. And it doesn’t take away my admiration for him and what he’s achieved with this team.”

Indeed, Kearney says this “new” Irish team have “blown me away with their standard of play”, particularly their comfort and skills on the ball.

“They don’t feel the need to kick contestables as much as maybe we did in the past and when they don’t have the ball it’s all-out defence and strong line speed to get the ball back.”

As a “new” team he also feels there’s no reason to believe why they can’t grow over the next two years.

In his book it’s also clear that he built up quite a relationship with Jordan Larmour, and anointed him as his successor. Like many, Kearney didn’t see Hugo Keenan coming.

“He’s massively surprised me, and I don’t mean that with any sort of negative connotation. When I was doing the book everyone was calling for Jordan. He was the next man in situ and I hadn’t seen a huge amount of Hugo play.

“But the last year-and-a-half has been extraordinary, and again I don’t mean that in any negative way. He’s just taken to international rugby like a duck to water. He grows week-in, week-out. His decision making is good. There’s a real solidity there and you need to know your full-back is going to tidy up any mess that comes his way, and be strong in the air and have good backfield coverage. He has genuinely been superb any time he’s pulled on the shirt. It’s very hard to pick out a weakness in his game.”

Career highlights

As for Kearney’s own career, if he was to pick out one highlight, it would be the Grand Slam coronation at a baltic Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day in 2018.

“I was still young in 2009 and to be able to do it again nine years later, and I played pretty well and was on top of my game after my body had been going through hell for a couple of years.”

Toughest opponent varies depending on how he was opposing them.

“Sitiveni Sivivatu and Joe Rokocoko, they were impossible to stop.”

Folau is the greatest athlete I've ever seen up close without a doubt. Smith was just pure All Black and Muliaina just had everything too

Covering the backfield, one of Kearney’s fortes?

“Carter. I would always look at the eyes of the ‘9’ and the ‘10’, because 99 per cent of the players in the world would look somewhere before they’re going to kick a ball there, whereas Carter was impossible to predict. He’d look one way, you’d think he’s going to kick it there, and then he’ll kick it the other direction.”

He liked the 50:22 rule when experiencing it in Super Rugby and believes it’s good for the game.

Best full-back?

“Emmm..that’s a tough one. Mils Muliaina, Israel Folau and Ben Smith.

“Folau is the greatest athlete I’ve ever seen up close without a doubt. Smith was just pure All Black and Muliaina just had everything too, your typical All Blacks outside back. Incredible at everything.”

Favourite teammate is an easy one, his brother.

“Lining up with Dave in the World Cup in 2015 will always be my proudest moment. I look at Johnny, Ferg, Sean Cronin, Dev Toner, these guys are fellas I played schoolboys rugby with and came right up through the ranks, so there’s a special sentiment there as well.”

“But while 2018 was my most satisfying day in a green shirt my proudest day will always be lining up for the anthems against France in Cardiff at the 2015 World Cup arm-in-arm with Dave.”

Losing their brother Ross, struck by a truck when just six, made them closer as a family. “Although he’s been gone for so long, he’s been the glue that’s kept us all together. Unfortunately so many families like that and it can be a real fracture point for them but it’s definitely gone the other way for us. Mum and Dad have kept the show on the road really well. I grew up in a really happy childhood.”

Looking back before his last ever game, Kearney says most of all he was lucky.

“For pretty much all the really important games I was there and fit and available. That stat, the 20 from 20 in those Six Nations games, there’s definitely an element of luck to that too and being fit at the right times. My over-riding sentiment is one of real gratitude that I was part of so many big days in a blue or green shirt.”

Having started 30 years ago playing minis at Dundalk RFC, he knows the time is right. He can ride off into the sunset with pride.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times