Kearney and McFadden bid farewell to Leinster after superb service

The 34-year-old pair have had many great days with their native province.

RATHER CRUELLY, A calf injury denied Fergus McFadden any chance of making a final appearance for Leinster after the 34-year-old had extended his contract through until the end of the 2019/20 season.

Rob Kearney, who is also 34, was available for selection in recent weeks but he didn’t get the chance to bid farewell to Leinster with an appearance out on the pitch.

A hamstring injury for his younger brother, Dave, could have seen Rob getting the nod but Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster opted to stick with Jordan Larmour at fullback and pick Hugo Keenan on the right wing for their knock-out games.

rob-kearney-and-fergus-mcfadden-lift-the-guinness-pro14-trophy James Crombie / INPHO Kearney and McFadden lifted the Pro14 trophy two weekends ago. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

There was a nice moment for McFadden and Kearney as they lifted the Pro14 trophy for Leinster two weekends ago but it was an underwhelming title celebration without any fans in the stadium. Such is life in the Covid era.

Raising that trophy was essentially the last act in McFadden and Kearney’s Leinster careers, which certainly seems a shame after all they have given to the province over the course of the 15 years or so.

Having made his debut as a 19-year-old way back in 2005, playing on the wing often in his early days with the senior squad, Kearney featured prominently in their drive to a first-ever Heineken Cup in 2009, when he came off the bench in the final against Leicester.

He missed the remarkable comeback win over Northampton in the 2011 final due to injury but did feature at the start of that season’s European campaign so certainly played some part, however small, in Joe Schmidt’s side earning their second European star.

The following season, Kearney had seven starts as Leinster retained their Heineken Cup title in style, hammering Ulster in the final as the Louth man played a starring role again.

Leinster had to wait another six years for their next European trophy but Kearney was still in situ in the number 15 jersey as Cullen and Lancaster’s side edged out Racing in the 2018 final in Bilbao.

Kearney had changed as a player, but the game itself had changed too. His enduring quality in the air, his exceptional backfield coverage, and his reliable, experienced air of calm remained important to Leinster.

rob-kearney Billy Stickland / INPHO Kearney in action for Leinster back in 2005. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

The 34-year-old’s durability has been genuinely remarkable and it’s worth remembering that he started last year’s Champions Cup final against Saracens too, before eventually being replaced more permanently as first-choice fullback by Jordan Larmour in the 2019/20 season.

Along the way, Kearney has picked up six Celtic League/Pro14 winner’s medals too, as well as a Challenge Cup title in 2013. On an individual level, he was named European Player of the Year after that brilliant 2012 campaign, while remaining a key man for Ireland throughout – winning Grand Slams in 2009 and 2018 as he won 95 caps – and also going on Lions tours in 2009 and 2013, earning three Test caps.

There have been few more decorated players in the sport, never mind Irish rugby.

Kearney has previously indicated that he was keen to play on after this short-term contract extension with Leinster concluded although the rugby market is a very different place at present. Previously, the fullback would likely have had several enticing offers but every club in the game is playing it safe in these worrying times.

If this is to be retirement for Kearney, he can reflect on a glittering career.

McFadden is definitely finished in professional rugby, having previously announced his retirement and while he would have enjoyed one last challenge for Leinster – and no doubt thrown himself into it with aggression – he can look back with pride too.

The Kildare man was a later starter than Kearney, making his senior Leinster debut as a 21-year-old in 2007.

A midfielder in those days, McFadden gradually became a man for any occasion – slotting in on either wing or either centre position as required and usually delivering a relentless, impactful performance. He even place-kicked with some success when required.

fergus-mcfadden-goes-on-a-run Cathal Noonan / INPHO McFadden made his Leinster debut in 2007. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

Having missed out on involvement in the 2009 Heineken Cup, McFadden featured in 2011, coming off the bench in the final against Northampton, then started the 2012 decider against Ulster on the right wing.

Again, McFadden proved to be durable as his career continued all the way up to this month. He was desperately unlucky to miss the 2018 Champions Cup final – having been a starter in Europe all season – after he injured his hamstring in the process of scoring a try in the semi-final against Scarlets.

He hasn’t featured in Europe in the two seasons since, but McFadden – who was capped 34 times by Ireland – has remained a real fan favourite in Leinster, with his head-banded commitment, hard tackling, and flourishes of pace continuing to earn him Pro14 starts. McFadden’s energy around the training environment and off the field has always been appreciated by team-mates too.

Now, Leinster must move on without Kearney and McFadden.

Larmour has established himself as Cullen and Lancaster’s first-choice fullback since the departure of Joey Carbery in 2018 ended their plans of continuing to develop a Johnny Sexton-Carbery playmaking axis at 10 and 15.

Hugo Keenan’s form on the right wing in recent weeks has been good, having played most of his rugby for Leinster at fullback, while James Lowe has become a key man on the left wing since his arrival in 2017.

Adam Byrne is currently sidelined for several months after hamstring surgery, while Cian Kelleher has yet to fully ignite since returning to his native province from Connacht. 

fegus-mcfadden-and-rob-kearney-at-the-final-whistle James Crombie / INPHO McFadden and Kearney have had great days together for Leinster. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Year 3 of the Leinster academy includes back three players Aaron O’Sullivan and Michael Silvester, both of whom played for the Ireland U20s and have been involved with the Ireland 7s more recently, but have yet to make their senior Leinster debuts.

Year 1 wing Andrew Smith was impressive for the Ireland U20s earlier this year, while fellow new faces Max O’Reilly and Niall Comerford were also part of Noel McNamara’s squad.

With McFadden and Kearney now finished with Leinster, there will be an onus on the next generation to begin fulfilling their potential in the way those two stalwarts did.

No one can say McFadden and Kearney, with 184 and 219 caps respectively, didn’t squeeze every drop out of their time with Leinster.

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