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'Joe really does get a bit emotional and it doesn’t feel right. Like seeing your dad cry'

Rob Kearney recalls the end of an era with the Irish team.

Rob Kearney with Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt in 2016.
Rob Kearney with Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt in 2016.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from No Hiding by Rob Kearney.

It hurts at first. I am not happy to be called ashore. That’s a reflex, though. No player ever wants to be hauled away from the action. As I head toward the bench, there is a separate part of me which is thinking differently. Thank Christ I am getting off this field.

We’ve lost this game. 60 minutes gone. Nothing running right. I’m not doing anybody any favours by being out there. Get me off this field, thank you.

And yet another part of me is noting that Jordan Larmour has just come on. In 20 minutes, we will be out of this World Cup. Andy Farrell, our new coach, will start building towards the next one. This was potentially my last game for Ireland. Jordan Larmour is going the other way. He is the future.

If we are honest, this one was lost by half time. New Zealand were elemental in their power, ferociously grabbing territory from us, hitting us with big drives and stinging tries. Coming again with a combination of gut shots and haymakers. We’d said the right things to each other at the break but it was 22-0 by then and we knew that it was lost.

So it’s over for me now and I’ll have a little mental preparation time before we have to go out into the real world beyond the dressing room door. I know the shit that I, personally, am going to take and I know that I will take that shit personally. I know what will be heaped on us as a team. Everybody has an opinion and we are entitled to everybody’s opinion. If this is the end, I won’t miss that constant noise.

When the game is over, we hug each other and we troop back in to our changing room. I take off my boots and just sit there and think to myself. That’s it. I am done, so done, with international rugby. I’ve had my fill. It’s all hassle. Too much stress and hassle. 10 minutes or so before we are due to leave the dressing room, Joe Schmidt comes in from whatever aftermath duties he has been dealing with.

He says a few words to us. He talks about how he is feeling and how proud of us all he is. He says how much he has enjoyed working with us, not just as a team but as people. It’s the last time he will speak to us in a dressing room and I wonder if Joe is going to get a little emotional. I have never seen him be emotional.

Then Rory Best stands up. As our captain he thanks Joe for everything he has done and now Joe really does get a bit emotional and it doesn’t feel right. Like seeing your dad cry.

Players just stand up and shuffle towards him one by one. We need just to embrace him. I feel a huge affection towards him now, just seeing the flesh and blood side of a human being who lots of people have mistaken for a computer system hardwired for rugby. I wait my turn. Joey Carbery and Jordan Larmour are in front of me. Joe is saying something to them along the lines of, you guys, you guys are the future, you are the ones who are going to take Irish rugby to the next step. His benediction.

And then it’s me. Old mutton. Very much not the future. But Joe looks at me and just says, 10 years Kearns, we’ve been through so much.

All the seasons, all the training sessions, all the games since our paths intersected. A man from Kawakawa, New Zealand and a young lad from Cooley, County Louth. It’s ending in a dressing room in Japan. I tear up now too. I was a little weepy a while ago out there on the grass when the last whistle blew. Now the tears come again.

After big games, the PR people take cattle prods from their briefcases and poke reluctant players in their ones and twos out into the media mixed zone to supply instant quotes to journalists. It’s part of the job but you are reluctant to go out after a win because the dressing room is a happy place. You are more reluctant after a loss. Out there will be even worse than in here.

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Keith Earls arrived back in from the mixed zone a little while ago just as I was preparing to go out and face the music. He was more bemused than annoyed.

“Do you know what they wanted to know? Would I be considering my position? Would I be retiring? Minutes after the game? They were asking, is that it for you?”

I do an about-turn. Keith is about 18 months younger than I am. I’ve been reading published drafts of my own obituary in some papers for years now. I don’t need this stuff now. Not today.

Back during the 2016-17 period, there was so much time when I really didn’t enjoy playing for Ireland. We weren’t winning and I was copping quite a bit of personal crap. Nobody had ever said that it had to be fun but that time was no fun.

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I wasn’t playing my best. I knew that. My body was breaking down on me. I had become obsessed with the caps. I was just accumulating more headwear. Running up the numbers.

The numbers were the only thing people could never take away from me. Say whatever you want, write whatever you want, tweet whatever you want, but every cap I got represented one more time that I had got picked. One more time when I had got picked by somebody whose opinion really meant something. So I kept on going and Joe Schmidt kept picking me. While he had faith in me, I kept racking up those numbers.

But the criticism kept coming. I’m happy to take criticism and learn from criticism if it is informed and reasonable but some of the tone and content was personal. It got to me.

There are some guys whose bylines trigger bad reactions in the brain before you even read what is underneath. Gavin Cummiskey in the Irish Times gave me an awful going over in those years. I would have seen a lot of the stuff he wrote. I don’t know why it got to me, he’s not a major writer or a big voice but I felt that it was personal, that it was vendetta stuff. He wanted me out of the 15 jersey. He wanted me replaced by anybody that wasn’t Rob Kearney. Simon Zebo. Jordan Larmour. Jared Payne. Anybody.

Around 2016 and 2017, this was really getting to me. I wasn’t enjoying my game and the feeling was made worse by the texts and links that came my way.

– Cummiskey having a right slice off you today!
– Did you steal Cummiskey’s last Rolo?

I remember having a chat with Enda McNulty, the IRFU’s mental skills coach, about how I was feeling generally. I mentioned the media coverage.

“There is just this one fella who is just breaking me at the moment.”

“Yeah,” Enda said, “Gavin Cummiskey.”

So even Enda had noticed. He suggested a solution.

“What I want you to do for the next six months at the end of every gym session, at the end of every training session, at the end of every piece of work you do and any time you practise, I want you to do one extra rep. Call it the Gavin Cummiskey rep. So, after gym, one more bench press. If you are running, just one more lap or one more sprint and so on.”

So I did. Through gritted teeth, with clenched fists, on jaded legs. I did all my damn Cummiskeys.

I did lots of other things differently too and then, in 2018, everything changed. We started winning again. It was a bonus year, a late career dividend. I enjoyed my rugby and if Gavin Cummiskey, as it seemed to me, avoided me when things were going well, I didn’t go seeking him or his byline out.

In 2018, I was back in love with the game. Once more there was joy in playing for Ireland. I was playing well. We won another Grand Slam. We beat the All Blacks again. We had our triumphant tour of Australia. I was just ticking off so many things that I had never done before and some that I had wanted to do again.

I packed about as many good times into a single year as it is possible for a player to do. That year, with its avalanche of medals and memories, had to come to an end, of course. Now, here at the World Cup, we’ve been reminded that whatever we did last year couldn’t inoculate us against disaster. Japan have beaten us in a famous victory for our hosts and the All Blacks have just handed us our asses on a plate.

Now I am stuffing gear into my kitbag and thinking that I may never be putting my boots on again in an international dressing room. If that’s the case, I’m happy enough. I’ve had enough of days like these and also I’ve had more of the good times than I ever dreamed of having. No more games. No more mixed zones. I’ll take that.

No Hiding by Rob Kearney is published by Reach Sport. More info here.

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