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Dublin: 1°C Friday 7 May 2021

'Elite athletes are no different to any other punter in the world'

Ireland fullback Rob Kearney feels one set-piece attack can result in Joe Schmidt’s side regaining their confidence.

IRELAND’S PLAYERS ARE just like the rest of us.

So says fullback Rob Kearney.

Joe Schmidt’s side have been suffering from a dent in their confidence caused by a defeat at home to England in the opening round of the Six Nations, with the effects still felt two weekends ago as Ireland stuttered to a bonus-point win over Italy in Rome.

To manufacture wins over Scotland and the Italians despite not being at their best is of credit to Ireland, but they have cut frustrated figures even in victory.

Rob Kearney Rob Kearney feels dips in confidence are part and parcel of life. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ireland have clearly been carrying the wounds of that loss to the English, which has been difficult to understand for some.

Having won a Grand Slam last year, enjoyed a series success in Australia in the summer and beaten New Zealand as recently as November, Ireland’s dip in belief in recent weeks has shown that confidence is fickle, even at the highest level of professional rugby.

“Elite athletes are no different to any other punter in the world, someone watching on from the stand,” says Kearney. “It’s still a human person with the same thoughts, the same negative thoughts, the same positive thoughts. We’re all the same.

“You put a guy out on the field in front of 80,000 people and a few million people watching on television and you make a mistake, it will have that effect on anybody.

“And that’s where our training comes in, our confidence, a little bit of sports psychology and mindfulness, all the little things that we do in the background to give you that ability to park it, next moment, and keep looking forward.”

With that in mind, Sunday’s Six Nations clash with France in Dublin gives Kearney and co. their latest opportunity to deliver the performance – or even the single piece of play – that can send confidence flooding through them again.

“A team’s confidence can come back in one set-piece, three or four phases of play, where passing is really accurate, you find the holes or the gaps that you scouted during the week, people running onto the ball at pace, you score a try at the end of it, everyone is jumping in on top of each other, celebrating a try,” says the experienced 32-year-old.

“The great thing about a team lacking a little bit of confidence is that it just takes a small spark to get it back. That is what we will be hoping for early on at the weekend.”

Rob Kearney Ireland have been short of their best in this Six Nations. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The return of a handful of players from injury issues could also bring fresh energy into the Ireland squad this weekend, with CJ Stander, Jack Conan, Garry Ringrose, Jordan Larmour and Tadhg Beirne set to return to the selection mix.

Ireland will be without Robbie Henshaw and Dan Leavy against les Bleus, while Joey Carbery remains a doubt with his hamstring injury, but the reinforcements are timely.

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Chris Farrell has done a good job at outside centre in the last two games, but Ringrose’s return to fitness after a hamstring issue could be important – Ireland having missed his creative and intelligent influence at key moments.

“I think he is a very complete player,” says Kearney of Ringrose. “He has very few weaknesses in his game – he’s quick, he’s a superb defender, a good communicator, a good distributor.

“So, him coming back into the squad when he came back in on Monday night was very welcome.

“Chris has been really good over the last couple of weeks too, he’s given us a lot of go-forward ball. He’s a big, strong man and he does have a really good ability to distribute too.

“I’m sure that’s one area that he and a lot of us across the backline have probably lacked a little bit over the last couple of weeks.”

Cian Healy and captain Rory Best are set to return to Ireland’s starting front row after being rested for the clash with Italy, while James Ryan is expected back in the second row having also been taken out of the firing line in Rome.

Rob Kearney with fans Kearney at last week's opening training session in Belfast. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Ryan could partner Iain Henderson in the second row, while Peter O’Mahony and Josh van der Flier are favourites for the flanker slots on either side of Stander or Conan.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton’s quest for their best form is expected to continue at halfback, with Aki and Ringrose perhaps partnering in midfield, and the back three of Keith Earls, Jacob Stockdale and Kearney possibly continuing.

“It’s very strong,” says Kearney of his understanding with Earls and Stockdale. “We’re always trying to work on it. Backfield, edge defence is becoming increasingly important in the game so I think the thing about it is that if we’re off a little bit, you can be very heavily exposed.

“You have to be absolutely bang on perfect every phase of the play. A small lapse in concentration in the team can be punished.

“Even a few times [in training against the Ireland U20s] in Belfast on Friday, there were a few things where we got pulled apart.

“And it just puts the team under pressure if the opposition finds some grass, finds some corners and it gives them a bit of an impetus into the game.

“We feel a huge amount of responsibility to make sure we’re squeaky clean right throughout the game.”

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Murray Kinsella

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