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'It's torture and tests your love for the game': Rob Kearney on his injury hell

Rob Kearney had worked his way back to full fitness after two injury-ravaged seasons only to suffer another cruel setback in the first home game of the year.

Rob Kearney Kearney played two games this season before injury struck again. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

MOMENTS BEFORE ROB Kearney’s evening was so cruelly cut short, one Leinster supporter turned to another in the RDS Grandstand and made it known how pleased he was to see the fullback back in blue. The majority inside the ground would have been thinking the same thing — and then shared the same frustration and disappointment when he limped off clutching that damn hamstring.

There’s bad luck, and then there’s the wretched misfortune Kearney has endured over the last two injury-ravaged seasons. Operations, comebacks, setbacks and just 19 appearances for Leinster.

“I’m ok, better than I was 10 days ago,” he says. “It was a bad one [tear] this time.”

The thing is the season had started so positively for Kearney. A full pre-season of gym and pitch work, a first Leinster appearance since January and a clear run of games to regain his full fitness and move forward with all that injury hell in the rearview mirror.

But the next setback was only around the corner, this latest comeback lasting just 107 minutes before that troublesome hamstring went again, his leg getting stuck in the RDS turf and his whole body buckling forward. Eight more weeks on the sideline, a frustrating and devastating blow.

What’s more, Kearney had felt a bit of soreness in his hamstring in the week leading up to that Cardiff game but the scan came back all clear.

“If I pulled out of every game that I wasn’t feeling a hundred per cent before I’d have missed out on a hundred games,” he says.

Sitting here now, carefully and cautiously managing the niggle may have been the wiser move but hindsight is a great thing. He was just back, it was the first home game of the season and Kearney had missed enough rugby over the last 24 months as is. He was eager to play.

“There is so much going on. The annoying thing for me is that my hamstrings are pretty strong,” Kearney continues. “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 last year, even an incident or a tightening. It was brilliant.

Leinster’s Rob Kearney is tackled by Cardiff Blues Josh Navidi Kearney is expected to be out for eight weeks. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“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.”

Although sprinkled with positives, such as that famous win over the All Blacks in Chicago, the last 24 months have been agonising for Kearney. There were dark days and tough times and now he faces into that again; the mental strain of injury and recovery is so often harder to bear than the physical rehabilitation work.

“It is massively a mental challenge,” he admits. “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.

“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.”

Then there is the mental torture of being involved in the set-up on a daily basis but not actually existing inside the dressing room on matchday. That superficial interest in games without the substance of actually playing.

He continues: “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.

Rob Kearney Kearney was at the announcement of Bank of Ireland's sponsorship extension with Leinster this week. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“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.”

And then the question which comes with the territory; has all of this — the anguish, the agony, and the distress when the word injury is pluralised — taken its toll? Has his love for the game dissolved in any way? Has he considered calling it a day, even at the age of 31?

“I haven’t been there yet,” he goes on.”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.

“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.

“But 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.”

It’ll be a while before Kearney is back on the pitch, however, for now his daily routine will be based on making incremental improvements in the strength and resilience of his hamstring.

Rob Kearney His progress on the road to recovery has been encouraging and Kearney hopes to be back by the end of October. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Last week, he was looking forward to a trip to South Africa and the prospect of putting himself in the frame for selection for Ireland’s November internationals but now he’s back to square one. Those 6.45am starts, the monotony of rehabilitation work and the patience required to endure it all.

Yet he remains determined and focused on coming back stronger and fitter again. 187 Leinster appearances, 76 Ireland caps and three games for the Lions; despite it all Kearney hasn’t had a bad career, and he’s not finished just yet.

“My ambition this season is to play games,” he adds. ”Last year was disappointing. There is an incredible amount of talent in that group [at Leinster] and so many players who have so much to offer.

“It is tough being involved in clubs that you think should be winning stuff when you’re not. I suppose you get up every day to try and fulfil your own potential and achieve what you think you should be able to achieve.

“When you go through periods of not doing that, that’s the tough aspect of sport and I suppose, life as well. This team is capable of winning trophies. There is no reason why we shouldn’t be putting ourselves in really good positions to do that.”

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