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Recalling schooldays admiring Kearney's prowess, and 'frustrating' Leinster selection battles

Josh van der Flier pays tribute to Rob Kearney as he prepares to join Australian side Western Force.

Updated Sep 29th 2020, 10:54 PM

JOSH VAN DER Flier has paid tribute to his former Leinster and Ireland teammate, Rob Kearney as he prepares to embark on the next chapter of his rugby career.

josh-van-der-flier Leinster and Ireland star Josh van der Flier. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Following the conclusion of his time with the provincial and national team, Kearney has penned a one-year deal with Australian Super Rugby side Western Force.

The 34-year-old leaves an enduring legacy behind at Leinster. Four Heineken Cups, a Challenge Cup and six Pro14 titles over a 15-year period is quite an impressive haul of treasures. 

There’s also the four Six Nations titles he picked up in an Ireland jersey, and he enjoyed Grand Slam glory along the way.

The medals are certainly a metric of his success, but he was also one of van der Flier’s rugby idols. He can still recall his days as a student at Wesley College, looking on in awe at Kearney.

“They’re obviously the players you cheered on, watching Leinster play or Ireland play,” van der Flier tells The42 when asked about Kearney’s move to Western Force. He’s also referring to Fergus McFadden, another Leinster stalwart who has also retired from the club.

“You want to be playing alongside them. It was never anything you’d think would ever happen.

I remember in school, seeing Rob Kearney in Dundrum shopping centre walking around. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. It’s really cool cheering him on and then getting to play alongside Ferg and Rob was pretty cool.”

Although he was available for selection, Kearney didn’t get a chance to say his goodbyes on the pitch as Leinster lifted the Pro14 trophy.

Instead, he wrote a heartfelt letter to the fans on the back of his departure. He spoke to his team-mates after their Champions Cup quarter-final defeat to Saracens, before McFadden addressed the group the next day.

“They had the opportunity to say a few words,” says van der Flier.

“Rob said a few words after the quarter-final and then Fergus said a few words to the team the day after when we were reviewing the game. It was nice to get that sign off for them and get to say a proper goodbye.

“Rob will be away for the next year or so but it’s nice to know that they’ll be in and around Ireland hopefully, so we’ll definitely catch up with them.

“It’s not like they’re disappearing. They’ll still be around but just not in the changing room which will be very strange. But they’ll be very missed.”

The Covid-19 period has been a hectic time for van der Flier. He moved into a new house just before Ireland entered the lockdown phase of the pandemic, and has been busying himself with gardening work at his new abode.

josh-van-der-flier-and-rob-kearney Josh van der Flier and Rob Kearney. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

He also had a thesis to complete and submit, as part of a masters degree in business. Sustainable clothing was the focus of his study. He always wanted to keep one eye on his education during his rugby career, and running his own business is something he might look towards pursuing in the future.

As we chat on Zoom, the head of a guitar pokes out from behind the camera lens. He explains that he made that instrument for a Leaving Cert project, and is still strumming it to this day.

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“I just kind of mess around on Youtube and trying to learn the odd song. It probably cost me a few points, I spent so much time on it.”

The pitch life has been a bit more turbulent for van der Flier lately. He was handed the man-of-the-match award for his performance in the Pro14 final against Ulster, helping his side to a 27-5 victory at the Aviva Stadium.

However, the following week, he found himself on the bench for that Champions Cup quarter-final defeat to Saracens, with Will Connors replacing him. Head coach Leo Cullen informed him of the decision ahead of the formal team announcement to give him a chance to process the shock.

In a squad of such depth, one’s grip on a starting jersey is never fully assured.

“It is very competitive,” says van der Flier about the constant battle for selection at Leinster, “and definitely frustrating at times when it obviously went quite well in the Pro14 final, both personally and as a team.

You’re obviously on a big high then winning a trophy. To be on the bench the next week, and not to be starting was obviously frustrating in a way but Will Connors has been exceptional.

“People asked me how I felt about it, [and] that I must have been disappointed. It’s obviously very disappointing not to be in a starting position, but on a personal level, I’m delighted for Will because he’s a great guy and he’s worked really hard. It’s just a pity that it’s at my expense.”

Remarking on the need to look at the bigger picture, van der Flier added:

“It can be tough but at the end of the day, I ended up playing maybe 20, 30 minutes off the bench and there were guys who couldn’t even come into the stadium to watch because no-one was allowed there or they weren’t picked at all.

“Even looking at lads like Dan Leavy, he’s playing the same position and he could have been playing instead of both of us.”

The resumption of Ireland’s Six Nations campaign is on the horizon, but van der Flier insists that he hasn’t given much thought to that yet. A new club season is already upon Leinster, as they look to begin healing the wounds of that disappointing defeat to Saracens, when they take on the Dragons in the Pro14 this Friday.

“It’s great to win the Pro14 and obviously, a great achievement for the group but disappointing to finish the Champions Cup as we did.

“But it is nice, it’s something we’ve spoken about quite a bit [about] in Leinster and among the lads really, that it’s great to be able to have a two-week break with a loss at the end of the season and getting to go again.”

Leinster and Irish international flanker Josh Van Der Flier teamed up with Avonmore Protein Gold in advance of the start of a new season of rugby this weekend. Avonmore Protein Gold, is the latest addition to the Avonmore Protein Milk product range.

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