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'The transition is tough and it takes time. You have to find a new purpose' - Kearney

Former Ireland fullback Rob Kearney isn’t ruling out one last move before retiring from rugby.

Former Leinster and Ireland fullback Rob Kearney.
Former Leinster and Ireland fullback Rob Kearney.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Updated Sep 22nd 2021, 12:00 PM

SLOWLY BUT SURELY, Rob Kearney is beginning to settle into his own new normal. For the first time in his adult life, the former Ireland and Leinster fullback can’t classify himself as a professional rugby player.

Having finished up with Australian Super Rugby side Western Force over the summer, the 35-year-old is now back in Ireland, passing his time by playing a bit of GAA with his home club, Cooley Kickhams, and working on his handicap out on the golf course.

“It’s nice to be back,” Kearney says. “I had a great time away in Australia. I think it was almost the perfect final six months for me. I’d always planned to play outside of Ireland, and then I suppose the older I got and the longer my contracts with Leinster and the Union went on, the less likely that became.

“So Western Force sort of came around very late, a little out of the woodwork, but it was brilliant. It was an experience I really enjoyed. I don’t think I could have done it too early on in my career, but to finish there for a small stint was a great experience.”

Finish? The word jumps out a bit, as Kearney hasn’t actually confirmed his retirement. Turns out that’s because he’s still somewhat unsure what the future may hold. 

“There was a couple of contracts there for me (this summer), there was one in the south of France and the Western Force were keen enough to have a chat for next season again.

The one in France, they wanted me to be there for pre-season on the first of August and we were still playing in New Zealand on the 21st of June in Eden Park, so I needed a break and I had mentally come around to taking a few months off.

“But I suppose as time goes on, more and more and I’ve lost about five kilos of bodyweight now so it would be tough to put all that on alone to get back into playing rugby.”

He adds that he’s hoping to play for the Barbarians in November, and is open to reassessing his situation after that.

“While I say that now that I am very happy and I don’t want to play anymore, I sort of think sometimes that some fullback somewhere across Europe is going to get injured and there will be a medical joker thrown at me.

“It depends on a lot of things. I don’t know. I would say it is very much verging on the unlikely side as opposed to the likely.” 

For now at least, it sounds as if that chapter of Kearney’s life is closed, and since coming home to Ireland it’s certainly felt that way for him. It’s been a long time since this time of year hasn’t involved preparing for the start of another long season.

Rob Kearney joins Premier Sports 2 Rob Kearney pictured at the launch of Premier Sports' URC coverage in Ireland.

“It’s definitely tricky. I was somewhat lucky in that I finished up with Leinster in September time and then I wasn’t due to go out to Australia until January.

“So, I did have a three or four month period there where it was almost a bit of a softer transition for me. Coming back (to Ireland) now and getting back into that, I was almost somewhat prepared, I had a little bit of experience of dealing with it.

“But the transition is tough and it takes time. You just have to be patient with yourself. You have to find a new purpose for yourself. You’re creating a new identity for yourself.

“I am not someone who in 10 years’ time, wants to be talking about the Grand Slam in 2009 or 2018. So, you have to be forward-thinking and making sure that you always have something new on the horizon that you’re working towards.

“It’s different for every player. I am very lucky, I had a career of 16 years, lucky enough to have achieved so many things with so many great players and teams that when I finished that last contract, I was genuinely happy.

rob-kearney Kearney spent six months in Australia with Western Force. Source: Western Force/INPHO

“Instead of feeling regret and wanting to be back training with the lads and be around that group environment, the overriding feeling was just gratitude for what I had done.

“I don’t crave it in any way. You crave a little bit of that schedule and having to be places and being around people, but the training and playing games is something that I am very happy to have parked.”

Cooley Kickhams have also played their part, with Kearney recently swapping the oval ball for a round one.

“I played so much of it (Gaelic football) when I was younger,” Kearney explains. “When I signed my first Academy contract at 18 there was a bigwig in the IRFU, who will remain nameless, who said ‘That’s it, you’ll never play another game of Gaelic football in your life.’

“That has always sort of stuck with me a little bit since that day. I always said that if the body was good, I’d like to get back and play a few games.

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“When you are trying to transition out of something, it’s nice to go back on a Tuesday and Thursday evening and be with a group of people in a team environment.

You’re playing a game and at the end of the game, there is a winner and a loser. That’s sort of what I crave. I can’t throw on a pair of runners and go outside for a 10km jog or it’s tough going in the gym on your own and things like that. So, I prefer being around people in a team environment. Doing that a couple of times a week has definitely helped with that.”

Almost two years have passed since Kearney won his last international cap. Now, former Leinster teammate Hugo Keenan is the man in possession of the Ireland 15 shirt. Another former teammate, Simon Zebo, hopes to have something to say about that this season, even if the returning Munster hero didn’t make the cut in Andy Farrell’s first training squad of the autumn.

“I think for a squad of 50, it’s guys who were in camp last year, who got to play in the summer for the first time, bringing the Lions guys back in,” Kearney says.

“If (Zebo) he goes well in the first few months of this season well then he might be in the reckoning. To not see him in there straight away, I don’t think it was a surprise to too many people.

“It’s a huge boost (for Munster to have him back), on the field and off the field as well. He sells tickets. Again, when you’re looking at the future of the game and wanting to grow the game those are the sort of individuals you want in a team and playing in your local stadium on a Saturday afternoon.

“He’s been away, he’ll bring back some fresh ideas, a new set of eyes from what he has learned in Racing and definitely he will add an awful lot of value to team.

“He (Keenan) certainly hasn’t really made too many errors and I’m always a big believer that that’s what you pick your fullback first and foremost on. He’s been brilliant in the last year.I think he’s surprised a lot of people at how naturally he’s taken to international rugby.

“But it’s a position a lot of guys are wanting to play – Jacob (Stockdale), Jordan (Larmour), Simon Zebo coming back, Shane Daly is going to get a bit of time, Will Addison would probably be eyeing a bit of game-time there too, so there’s a lot of competition but you’d have to say he’s in the driving seat at the moment.”

Rob Kearney has joined Premier Sports for their live United Rugby Championship coverage in Ireland this season, which was also include fellow former internationals Stephen Ferris and Andrew Trimble, as well as Bernard Jackman, Graham Little, Mark Robson and Ryle Nugent. 

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Ciarán Kennedy

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