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A tribute to Rob Kearney: the history maker who kept coming back for more

Rob Kearney is on his way out of Leinster and Irish rugby but he leaves with a glittering CV and the knowledge he got the most out of his talent.

Waving goodbye: Kearney is leaving Leinster after 15 years.
Waving goodbye: Kearney is leaving Leinster after 15 years.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

AS ROB KEARNEY STOOD in the concrete bowels of Chicago’s imposing Soldier Field stadium, a squad of New Zealanders walked solemnly by. Dressed in black suits and looking glum, it was like a funereal scene.

The irony was that on this day, 5 November 2016, the pre-match prediction was that this game would prove to be a requiem for Rob Kearney’s career. After all, the last time he felt good about himself as a rugby player had been 18 months earlier. 

And so a man voted Europe’s best player in 2012 was undergoing the biggest crisis of his career. His body was saying stop as were a sizeable section of Ireland supporters who wanted someone else in his No15 shirt.

But all the injuries, all the misgivings, were washed away in a sea of emotion on that autumnal afternoon. “It’s been a tough enough 18 months for me,” Kearney said afterwards, just after the defeated All Blacks had walked by. “I have not been playing to my potential. People got on my case and then I got on my own case. My head has been in a dark enough place.”

Joe Schmidt, temporarily, put it a better place, pulling him aside to say, ‘You need a big one today’. It was the one-liner Kearney needed ‘to put the fear of God’ into him. That day, he delivered – as did Ireland. It was his, and Ireland’s, first time to defeat the All Blacks, another entry onto the Kearney CV.

irelands-rob-kearney Kearney was superb in Chicago against New Zealand. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

This morning, as confirmation came that Rob Kearney was on his way from Leinster – and by extension Irish rugby – the full detail of that CV was written out: a four-time winner of the Six Nations, twice a grand slam winner, a four-time Heineken Cup champion, a Challenge Cup winner, a six-time Pro14 winner and a two-time tourist with the Lions.

To put those facts and figures into context, consider this: the only trophy Leinster have won in the professional era – minus Kearney – was the 2002 Celtic League. Yet was he ever given the credit he deserved?

Initially capped against Argentina in 2007, Kearney’s journey to 95 Ireland caps was not without its challenges, firstly from a number of rival contenders for his No15 shirt and also from a succession of debilitating injuries. “Over the last 10-12 years, there has always been a young player who gets a huge amount of hype, season after season,” he said in 2018.

“Throughout my whole career I’ve always been in some pretty heavy battles with a lot of 15s. I could list them: Felix [Jones], Lukey [Fitzgerald], Geordan Murphy, Girvan [Dempsey] and then, over the last few years, Zeebs [Simon Zebo]. There’s always been a lot of really good players vying for the jersey.”

By now Jordan Larmour had also emerged. Kearney, however, was not prepared to surrender his starting position. “Competition gives you an edge,” he quietly said. “It is a great thing when you’re comfortable in yourself.”

This conversation took place in February. Six weeks later he had won his second grand slam. Then came another Champions Cup with Leinster; then a successful tour of Australia and then finally – that November – another win over the All Blacks.

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As a reward he was dropped for the opening game of the 2019 Six Nations, the team announcement feeling more like an office retirement party than a team selection, Schmidt rattling off a highlights reel of Kearney’s career, subconsciously delivering his eulogy in the past tense. For Kearney, the only crumb of comfort was that no one presented him with a clock.

Described by Schmidt as “a rock”, Kearney spent the day in a hard place. But this was where the real Rob Kearney appeared. He spent the week of the England game sitting down with Rob Henshaw – his replacement – to pore over videos, advising him on positional scenarios, being a good team player. As it happened, Ireland lost heavily, coughing up four tries and a week later, in his Times column, Donncha O’Callaghan didn’t hesitate to point out where it had all gone wrong.

“Don’t underestimate the absence of Rob Kearney in a score like this” O’Callaghan wrote. “He reads plays and gives instruction quickly; he prevents numerous tries without making a tackle in the same way a conductor doesn’t pick up an instrument.”

Other former team-mates spoke just as glowingly. O’Callaghan and Alan Quinlan were in the Johnstown House hotel in Enfield in December 2008 when Declan Kidney, the then Ireland coach, asked the players to break into small groups to discuss how they could improve.

Ronan O’Gara was in Kearney’s group and he read out their points to the room. One went something like: “Do Munster players play better with Munster or Ireland? Do they care as much about Ireland?”

This was questioned and Kearney had the strength of character to stand over what he said when addressing the wider group. “He certainly wasn’t beating his chest when he spoke,” said Alan Quinlan, later. “I don’t recall a confrontational tone at all. Nor do I remember feeling any way resentful towards him, more grateful for him being straight.”

Later than evening, Marcus Horan approached Kearney and thanked him for being honest.

“It was our job,” Quinlan later wrote, “to prove that we did care as much. As for Rob, his standing with us, increased. We liked his honesty.”

One by one, team mates would say the same thing. “One of the best team mates you could ever meet,” was Josh van der Flier’s assertion the other week.

And no one doubts it. A serial winner, collector of more medals than any other Irish rugby player, he leaves the game here – probably for one more adventure abroad – with his legacy secured. Written off so many times, he kept coming back and kept winning. History will judge him well.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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