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Dublin: 7°C Saturday 5 December 2020

Celebrating the 'small wins' a sign of Ireland's unity, says Kearney

Joe Schmidt’s squad didn’t wait for tries to present a positive, exuberant front.

CJ Stander is congratulated by teammates after winning a turn over

PERHAPS IT WAS because there’s now a hurler in the squad, or maybe it has more to do with the exposure to so many Saracens during the Lions tour.

But there was a definite amplification to the way many Ireland players reacted to the plethora of little battles that went their way.

It’s not new for players to rush in and gather to slap the back of a team-mate who forced a scrum penalty or breakdown turnover. But after Maro Itoje and Kyle Sinckler took body language levels up a notch or two throughout the Lions tour, it seemed like Ireland were following suit with particularly animated reactions to turnovers from CJ Stander, Rory Best and for a Jacob Stockdale tackle in the second half.

Jacob Stockdale and Johnny Sexton celebrate Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“It wasn’t conscious,” said Rob Kearney at Carton House yesterday, though the positivity of the body language had caught his eye.

“I was actually thinking the same thing on Sunday evening – that we were celebrating a lot of those small wins.

“There is a real good energy and togetherness in the squad at the moment. Sometimes you come into November and you don’t have that, for one reason or another.

“I can’t put my finger on it this time, as to why there is a good energy. But, certainly, that was something that we demonstrated at the weekend.

It does make a difference. If you are on the other side of it and you see the opposition celebrating and having a real togetherness, it can get into your head sometimes.”

“You probably try to put your own label or your own stamp on it,” Kearney said, brushing off a comparison with the exuberant in-game celebrations that has become a trademark of Saracens.

“I think there’s a big difference between slapping your own players and congratulations them as opposed to slapping the opposition. There’s a fine line there, so we’d be more in the line of congratulating our own players as opposed to antagonising opposition.”

Cian Healy, Robbie Henshaw and Sean O’Brien congratulate Rory Best for winning a turn over Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

One of those who merited heavy pats on the back was debutant Bundee Aki. After a week when the Connacht man’s selection for Ireland was decried in some quarters, Kearney’s words on the unity and togetherness in this Ireland squad hold a little extra weight.

“When you are going out to represent your country in big games, you need a massive level of togetherness. ‘Brotherhood’ is a word you hear a huge amount of times between players. When you go out to battle like that it is something that you do need.

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“We would have recognised over the last few weeks that Bundee was taking a little bit of stick for nothing that he’s done. He has just wanted to come here and play for Ireland and it probably does bring you together a little bit more.

“Guys understand that maybe he needed a little bit more love over the last week or two than he had been used to.

“Certainly, as someone who I wouldn’t have known a huge amount about him until the summer camp and wouldn’t have particularly have enjoyed playing against him over the last few years. It is nice to come into camp and get to know the person and be very pleasantly surprised.”

“He has been really good. He has been quiet. He has been keeping his head down and doing his work.

“He sort of came to life at the weekend during the game. He was quite nervous in the build up to it.”

Rob Kearney and Bundee Aki Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Those nerves seemed to utterly dissipate in the opening moments of the game when Aki rushed in to assist Jonathan Sexton in a tackle that inadvertently ended the match and the November tour before either had really begun for Coenie Oosthuizen.

Nobody wishes injury on a player, but whatever resistance the Sprinboks were ready to put up against Ireland was massively weakened when they had to put Wilco Louw up for a 79-minute stint on just his second cap.

“It set a massive tone, and when you see the opposition tighthead going off after 70 seconds, it’s a nice feeling. It is. And then to go and win the scrum penalty straight away, it set down a real marker at the start of the game.”

Of course, it wasn’t the power of body language that prevented the ‘Boks from stepping anywhere close to meeting the markers Ireland laid down. It just didn’t help them.

Buy The42’s new book, Behind The Lines, here:

‘I couldn’t get my head around it: ‘Why are we having this debate now? What did Aki do differently?”

‘There’s a fair bit of faith put in me and a fair bit of pressure to repay the coach’ — Rob Kearney

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Sean Farrell

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