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'I was a player who served bread and butter when people wanted cake'

Rob Kearney has won two Grand Slams, four Six Nations titles and four Champions Cups but he tells Garry Doyle that luck was a key factor in his success.

A reflective Rob Kearney looks back on his stellar career.
A reflective Rob Kearney looks back on his stellar career.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

IT WAS A career that took 15 years to build and 90 seconds to end. He was having Sunday lunch with his family when the call came, ANDY FARRELL, the name emboldened in capitals, appearing on his phone.

Quietly he made his way outside, brushing the snowflakes from the sleeves of his jacket. It was the fifteenth of December and the man who has won more medals than any other player in Irish rugby history was dumped with the chilling air of savage detachment that elite sport demands.

Suddenly, he began to reminisce, his thoughts drifting back to more innocent times when the sport he loved was a game rather than a job. “The longer you go on in your career, the more you realise how unsentimental it is. It makes you view your participation in a different light.”

After dinner, as his car thundered down the M1, he told his parents what had happened. “I’m done,” he said, the brevity of the sentence summing up the bluntness of the moment. “I was a player who provided bread and butter when people wanted cake,” he says, highlighting a sensitive side you don’t expect from someone who toughed it out to win 95 Ireland caps.

Yet it is visible in No Hiding, the name of Rob Kearney’s newly published autobiography where he doesn’t pretend to be something he’s not, where the doubts and the angst are as noticeable as the medals. “What I really wanted,” Kearney says, “was to give an insight into the fact that nobody is bulletproof even at a time when you are at the very top of your game; playing for Ireland, getting picked every week. Even then there are still a lot of conversations that you have with yourself. Some self-doubt will enter the fray.

There were periods of time when it all got a little too much for me but they are the moments that I look back on now with the most pride – that I was able to come out the other end.”

**

If you wanted to, you could imagine a scenario where there is an alternative honours board nailed onto the walls of the IRFU’s offices and at Leinster’s Belfield HQ. In this make-believe world, a line would be drawn down the middle: the trophies won with Rob Kearney, those won without.

At Leinster, one list would be long, the other staggeringly short. Leinster have lifted the European Champions Cup four times, the Pro14 on seven occasions and the Challenge Cup in 2013. Only once, in the 2001/02 season, did they win anything without Rob Kearney.

rob-kearney-and-fergus-mcfadden-lift-the-guinness-pro14-trophy-as-leinster-are-crowned-champions Last month's Pro14 title was the 11th major trophy Kearney won with Leinster. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

We could go on and cross town to Lansdowne Road where the honours board is more detailed, dating back to 1894, when Ireland won its first Home Nations championship outright. There have been only 13 since, Kearney there for four of those triumphs.

The three grand slams; Rob Kearney collected two of those. The four Six Nations titles; Rob Kearney has all four medals. The two wins over the All Blacks. You don’t need to be told who was wearing the No15 shirt in Chicago and at the Aviva. “The moment all that dawned on me was on Paddy’s Day in 2018, after that second grand slam, when myself and Rory (Best) walked around the pitch at Twickenham and said, ‘wow, we have two of these things now’.

“We knew we were the only two in the history of Irish rugby to have done that. When I look at the list of medals I won, I’m just so grateful that I timed my career to coincide with the end of one golden generation and then during the arrival of a second golden generation.

“I missed a fair few games with injury down through the years but always seemed to be fit for really, really big games.

There is no other way to describe it other than to say I was lucky.”

The words are delivered in a matter-of-fact manner rather than with a fake humility, a theme that is recurrent in his book when he outlines how he didn’t initially fit in at Leinster where Michael Cheika ‘always seemed to enjoy giving me a hard time’. More than that, Cheika ‘had his senior boys – Brian O’Driscoll, Shane Horgan and Denis Hickie – and made them his mates. They were the inner circle and the rest could sink or swim’.

gordon-darcy-getting-his-100th-cap Hickie, Horgan and O'Driscoll formed Cheika's inner circle, according to Kearney. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Kearney managed to stay afloat. Soon he’d do more than that, touring South Africa with the 2009 Lions, going to Australia with Warren Gatland’s 2013 tourists. There were World Cups and Heineken Cups, a European player of the year award and a succession of coaches, from Cheika through to Cullen; O’Sullivan to Schmidt.

And through it all, the man with the most decorated CV in Irish rugby struggled to get a good night’s sleep before team announcement day. “My whole life was determined by 80 minutes on a Saturday afternoon and if you were on a bench or in a stand watching a game on that particular week then it devalues that period of time in your life,” he says.

If Cheika got under his skin, Schmidt got into his head. There were two types of player who thrived under the New Zealander; those who did what he asked; and those who did what he asked without questioning him.

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Bizarrely, Kearney belonged in the second camp. He may be a strong-minded person, may have shown the resilience to come back from career threatening injuries and moments of deep introspection but in his book he talks about being afraid of the New Zealander.

“The fact I was still being picked by him meant I was prepared to take it (criticism) on the chin,”Kearney says, “knowing I was still going to get picked on a weekend and if I did what I normally did then I would probably get picked the following weekend. So there was probably a reluctance to ruffle any feathers.

“And maybe a little to my detriment, he probably learned through the years that I produced my best performances when I was put under the most amount of pressure. So on the week of a big game, he may have felt that if he pressed on me a little bit more that I would produce the goods on the Saturday.

“I’ve never been able to get to the bottom of why I’m like that, why when my back was against the wall that I delivered my best performances. I just can’t explain why that was.”

Watching Schmidt break down after his last match in charge at the 2019 World Cup was, he writes, like watching your father cry. He’s aware of the debt he owes him, the warmth they share from the medals they won. “When I look back on the course of the last 15 years, the best memories you have are from the times when you are lifting trophies.

“With Joe, we lifted more trophies with him as a coach than anyone else. So when I see him in 10-years-time, I’ll immediately be brought back to Soldier Field, to Twickenham, 2018, to all those great days.”

joe-schmidt-celebrates-winning-with-rob-kearney Schmidt and Kearney celebrate Ireland's win at Soldier Field. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

Part of him thinks he’ll always be one of Joe’s boys, even when he becomes older, greyer and stouter. This idea that it was all stick, no carrot with Schmidt, is one he distances himself from. “He is demanding, for sure, but there is a generosity there.”

That same attribute was bestowed on Kearney by those who played with him, Josh van der Flier describing him as a perfect team mate, Alan Quinlan and Donncha O’Callaghan writing similarly glowing references. “When all the dust settles, that is the legacy you want to leave, to know team mates trusted you to give your all.”

But time moves on. Time isn’t sentimental. Time has no respect for CVs or the fact that team-mates consider you a good guy. It is only two years since he and Schmidt were beating the All Blacks, a month when they peaked as the best side in the world.

Yet on that same stage today the audience will watch a largely different cast. Everyone, especially in this cursed year, have their own concerns so they won’t think about the man who misses these moments, the bus journey to the stadium, the pride of listening to the national anthem, the post-match beer shared in the dressing room. “International rugby can be stressful so there is a kind of relief to be away from it,” Kearney says, before checking himself. “If you could, of course you’d want to start all over again.”

He can’t. All he can do is watch from the distance of his living room, remembering the 11 times he played Italy, the beatings dished out, the nervy, narrow wins, the one humiliating loss.

“The secret to beating them comprehensively is when you play to the full 80 minutes,” he says. “This perception that if you start brightly then you can wipe them away – look that never happens. It always takes 50, 60 minutes before you finally start to break them down. The longer you allow them into a game, the more belief they will get.

“So it will be tougher without a crowd for us, too – because that kind of thing always favours the underdogs. In a sense, home advantage has kind of been taken away from you. This isn’t the same scenario as say, Murrayfield in 2015, when we had a definite number to chase and knew that if we didn’t reach this target that we were not going to win the tournament.

“On that day, our attitude was ‘look, to hell with this, let’s just throw the kitchen sink at them’. This is different; it isn’t as clear-cut. You have to be patient, you have to work hard and keep at it. That’s sport.”

  • Rob Kearney: No Hiding published by Reach Sport is available online from Irish bookstores. Also see www.reachsport.com

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Garry Doyle

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