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“I remember Paulie smacking me on the arse and saying: ‘best of luck kid, you’ll get the next one!'

Rob Kearney looks back on painful memories of his early clashes with Munster.

THE RIVALRY IS ‘different’, admits Rob Kearney ahead of the latest instalment of Leinster v Munster (Saturday 6pm).

These days, with players hopping across provincial borders with greater regularity and the IRFU pushing efforts to conserve resources for the good of the national team, there is a more controlled and civilised feel to the big inter-pro.

When Kearney ran on as a replacement for his first taste of the island’s biggest rivalry, Munster were the perennial European challenger and a yardstick for any side to gauge themselves against.

Leinster were still a long way off putting the first of those four stars above their crest. Even winning in Munster felt beyond them as years ticked on by after a 1998 success in Dooradoyle. Different times.

A defining memory for Kearney came in his second season as a pro when he was called upon to replace the injured Girvan Dempsey in a Christmas 2006 encounter in Thomond Park.

Rob Kearney drops the ball Kearney under one of those high balls in 06. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“It was pouring rain. Rog kept putting up-and-unders to me and I kept dropping them one after another,” Kearney recalls ruefully.

The gut-punches came in mental form as well as physical. Having lost 33-9 in his first trip to Munster, Kearney’s second ended 25-11 and the scars of those mishandled Garryowens remain.

“I remember Paulie coming up and smacking me on the arse and saying: ‘best of luck kid, you’ll get the next one, you’ll get the next one!’

“After the game, I was talking to my old man and he couldn’t get over how nice Paul O’Connell was, ‘encouraging me’ during the game.

“I told him he had a few things to learn.”

A dozen odd years on and the acerbic content of this fixture – at least on the field – has been diluted. The obvious benefit comes in a more serene national team environment with four Six Nations titles since 2009 keeping provincial stalwarts sated enough to stay out of the deepest entrenched positions.

“It’s certainly different now than it was,” says Kearney, “there’s not the same level of hatred. Guys get on much better in national camp now, a lot of the guys would consider themselves good friends and that certainly wasn’t the case 14 years ago.

“So maybe back then that was a little bit to the detriment of the national team’s performances.

Goodbody announce partnership with Rugby Players Ireland Kearney was speaking as Rugby Players Ireland announced their partnership with Goodbody. Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

“You need to have real strong relationships with your team-mates at a national level to be a successful team, so if it has taken a small bit of the bite out of the provincial derbies.”

“You had a lot of bragging rights for the season, depending on how you came out of those derbies.

“The Leinster-Munster game was always the big one. Years after that, Connacht became a much more successful team. They were very hard to beat down in Galway and they were taking scalps, and Ulster were in Ravenhill.

“The tables started to turn in different directions.”

Every inter-pro is a chance to tilt the balance of power again.

 

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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