Thursday 2 February 2023 Dublin: 8°C
Ramsey Cardy Kearney played 51 times for Leinster.
# an italian job
'In my head, I'd finish my career at Leinster but you've to do what's best for you'
The opportunity to start a new chapter in Italy and play more rugby was one too good to turn down for Mick Kearney.

IF THERE WAS ever an example of the wildly fluctuating fortunes of professional sport, and the vulnerability of such variables as form and fitness, then the sight of Mick Kearney being escorted towards the RDS changing rooms was just that.

Requiring oxygen to ease the pain of a dislocated shoulder, that April night against Benetton was the last Leinster fans were to see of Kearney in the blue jersey, even if few knew it at the time. 51 appearances and done.

Not only was it cruel in the sense that a four-year career with his native province had ended in that fashion, but seven days previous, Kearney had been the player to replace the luckless Dan Leavy with 17 minutes remaining in Leinster’s Champions Cup win over Ulster.

Having earned his place in Leo Cullen’s matchday squad for that quarter-final at the Aviva Stadium, Leavy’s misfortune had presented Kearney with the opportunity his hard work and performances had merited: a first European appearance in nearly three years.

But, no more than a week later, it was he who lay stricken on the turf, a shoulder operation ending his season and with it, his time as a Leinster player.

“For me to come on and have an impact on a European quarter-final that was in the balance was very pleasing and it gave me a massive amount of confidence going into the following week,” Kearney tells The42.

“But unfortunately, that was the week I ended up doing my shoulder. It’s just the way things go, you have to take the good with the bad.”

Indeed, the 28-year-old had enjoyed arguably his best season in blue last term, featuring in 16 of Leinster’s 21 regular season Pro14 games, and although he was denied the opportunity to force his way into Cullen’s plans for the league-winning run-in through injury, he had played more minutes [539] than in any of his previous three seasons at the club.

Out of contract at the end of the season, and with a number of young second rows pushing for minutes behind him, Kearney — as hard as it was — had come to the realisation that his future was away from Leinster.

With an offer to move abroad and open a new chapter in his life and rugby career with Italian side Zebre, Kearney didn’t have to take too much time to weigh up his decision, particularly when Ian Nagle had already agreed to make the same move.

“For the last four years at Leinster, as much as I enjoyed it and I feel incredibly privileged to have played 51 games for Leinster, I still felt I had more rugby in me,” he explains.

Mick Kearney and Jack Conan celebrate after the game Morgan Treacy / INPHO Kearney spent four years at Leinster. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“Obviously there were injuries and times you might get a bit unlucky. Every player experiences that, but when the opportunity came through to come to Zebre I saw it as a chance to experience a new culture, to hopefully learn a new language and play loads and loads of rugby. That was the big lure for me.

“I just felt it was the right time to come to a place like Zebre and hopefully get the opportunity to get minutes under my belt.”

Working with his agent, Dave McHugh of Lineup Sports, Kearney’s CV — which includes spells at both Connacht and Leinster — made him an attractive proposition for a host of clubs, particularly for an envolving and emerging side like Michael Bradley’s Zebre.

Having come up through the Leinster underage ranks, and represented Ireland at U20 level alongside the likes of Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy, Andrew Conway and Tadhg Furlong, Kearney signed his first professional contract at Connacht in 2011.

He would spend four seasons at the Sportsground, emerging as a real leader in the second row with his ability to call the lineout a key strength, before his impressive displays in Pat Lam’s Connacht sides earned him a move back to Leinster ahead of the 2015/16 season.

On his time at the RDS, Kearney reflects: “Being at Leinster was the most enjoyable of my rugby career to date, even if there were a lot of injury frustrations and setbacks. But from an experience point of view, and the environment and the people in Leinster, I couldn’t speak highly enough of the experience.

An unbelievable club, unbelievable coaches, a great bunch of players and it’s the kind of place you feel honoured to be a part of. Leaving, it’s never how you see it going. In my head, I would have finished my career at Leinster but at the same time, you need to do what’s best for your career.

With Jack Dunne and Oisin Dowling pushing through last season, the highly-rated Ryan Baird making his senior debut towards the end of the campaign, and Charlie Ryan and Brian Denny both entering the academy system this summer, Kearney was aware of the young talent behind him.

“From a Leinster point of view as well, they’re probably looking at their pathway and saying well we’ve got these lads coming up. For me to be there, I suppose from Leinster’s point of view, it ended up being quite a mutual agreement [to leave].

“These guys are going to get an opportunity now in certain games that I probably would have been in the mix for and I’m getting to come to a place like Zebre, which is a fantastic part of the world, to play for a team that is on the up and hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to play lots of rugby.”

Kearney has been in Parma since the second week of June, having started his shoulder rehab in UCD with Fearghal Kerin before continuing it under the watchful eye of Zebre’s medical team.

On the pitch, the first five weeks of pre-season with his new team-mates have been very productive as Kearney — a self-confessed student of the game — has been enjoying the chance to work and learn under new coaches, including former Ireland international Bradley, Carlo Orlandi [forwards] and Alessandro Troncon [backs and defence].

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Mick Kearney Ryan Byrne / INPHO The second row is relishing a new challenge in Italy. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Kearney is building up his match fitness all the time and has made excellent progress in his comeback from surgery, declaring that he would be ’90% confident’ of playing next week if there was a game. Unfortunately for him, he’ll have to wait a little while yet to make his Zebre debut.

The later-than-usual start to the Pro14 season, owing to the small matter of the World Cup, will, at least, allow Kearney and Nagle to fully settle in and get a better grasp of the new language, particularly for Troncon’s defensive sessions.

“I had heard of Michael Bradley’s coaching style in the past, and heard nothing but good reviews, so I was looking forward to working with him,” the Clontarf native continues. “And I have to say, he hasn’t disappointed so far. The new coaching voice has been refreshing.

“The majority of the sessions are in Italian. If you don’t learn quickly, you’re left behind. Troncon only speaks Italian so you have to be fairly on your game with that and if you’re struggling, Michael is very good and he’ll swoop in and give you a quick hand with the translation.

Myself and Nags, we’re actually doing the Italian classes together and teeing up an apartment to live together over here. We’ve had a few funny encounters in different cafes and restaurants trying out our new skills from the language classes but it’s all good. We’ll get there.

It is clear that Kearney is relishing the on and off field opportunities in front of him, and while it was an undoubtedly difficult decision to leave Leinster behind, a move to Parma will, all going well, allow him build up his minutes and achieve that level of consistency in performance.

“You train to play. You want to play games,” he adds. “I wouldn’t say there was a stage at Leinster because they’re so, so good with rotation and everyone gets a crack and everyone gets an opportunity to prove themselves.

“But the idea of coming to a place like Zebre and getting the opportunity to string a couple of games together, maybe six or seven games in a row, and hopefully fingers crossed, stay injury free. It was just a chance I couldn’t really pass up, to be honest.

“Now I’m just looking forward to getting out on the pitch and showing that I can contribute to this group and hopefully add some big performances.”

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