Saturday 1 October 2016

Kate Rowan: Full-throttle battle for the full backs in Murrayfield clash

Kate Rowan

Published 22/02/2013 | 16:50

Ireland's Rob Kearney
Ireland's Rob Kearney

A jockey and a Gaelic football player. If fate had played out differently both starting fullbacks in Ireland’s encounter against Scotland this weekend could have had different sporting careers.

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It is well known on these shores that Rob Kearney was a talented Gaelic footballer, having represented Louth at minor football and played in a senior club county final for his local club, Cooley Kickhams before signing his first professional rugby contract.

Many would credit Kearney’s GAA days as helping to foster his talent under the high ball and kicking skills.

The 26-year-old will be going head to head with Scotland’s latest sensation Stuart Hogg. The young Scot grew up with a love of all things equine as well as the oval ball. In his early days at Glasgow Warriors, Hogg was homesick for his Boarders hometown of Hawick and had contemplated moving back to his hometown to train as a jockey.

An outsider may suspect Hogg was of a diminutive frame harbouring horse racing dreams but stands at six feet, just an inch shorter than Kearney. The Irish fullback possesses a more significant weight advantage.

This week the media here has gone into out-half overdrive, with talk of centre partnerships coming a close enough second with Declan Kidney’s selection of Test debutants Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall respectively.

Yet a potentially fascinating subplot is the battle of the fullbacks. At 20, Hogg is younger than both Jackson and Marshall but after scoring against both England and Italy, he has become a major talking point for selection in the ever-changing predicted Lions squad from both pundits of the professional and the armchair variety.

It will certainly be interesting to see how the comparatively veteran Kearney fairs in Edinburgh. You cannot help but guess that the Leinster player may put in a performance closer to his European Player of the Year best from last season as he faces a player who he is in direct competition with for the Lions fullback berth.

We are also more likely to see Kearney’s best as the Six Nations progresses as he only came back last month from a break caused by back surgery. After his longer absence from the end of 2010 until the warm up games for 2011 World Cup, it took time as it would with any player coming back from injury for him to return to his swashbuckling peak.

There seems to be an element of the same sort of media attention enveloping Hogg in his homeland at the moment that enveloped Simon Zebo in the aftermath of his tricky-flicking heroics in Cardiff. Numerous human-interest features have been dedicated to Hogg in the past few weeks. There has even been mention of him being a distant relation of George Best.

As with Zebo, the Scottish fullback likes to mark his scoring of a try with a personalised celebration. The Cork man makes a “Z” shape with his fingers, the meaning pretty obvious.

While Hogg likes to make a “W”, the origins of this celebration were unclear and it was not until the player revealed the meaning of the “W” that it became apparent it was more of a commemoration with a tragic story behind it.

Almost four years ago, Hogg survived a car accident but his friend Richard Wilkinson who he played rugby with at underage level did not. Wilkinson lost his life at just 17 and Hogg says, “There probably isn’t a day in my life when I don’t think about him.”

It is clear life away from rugby has not always been easy for Hogg nor has life been on the pitch. In the early part of this season he was deposed as Glasgow’s starting fullback in favour of Peter Murchie.

What helped get the young professional up to the dizzying heights he has scaled during the opening rounds of the Six Nations? Some inspiration from the two best fullbacks in the world apparently. Hogg spent much time watching videos of All Black Israel Dagg and Kearney while he was going through that dip of form in late 2012.

Stylistically, Hogg would probably compare more with a southern hemisphere fullback such as Dagg rather than with a kicking and highball specialist such as Kearney. The Scot is good on the counter attack, bounding with pacey flair.

During the 2009 Ireland Grand Slam campaign much of the same hype that now surrounds Hogg in Scotland, surrounded Kearney here. In those four years he has transitioned from being a young gun to a senior Irish player, a pivotal leader amongst the backs.

From a media perspective, the Irish fullback is proving to be an eloquent speaker, fronting up to the press at important times such as after Ireland’s horrific loss to New Zealand in Hamilton, in the wake of the announcement of Jonathan Sexton’s departure to France and upon the the defeat to England.

This encounter between fullbacks in Murrayfield will no doubt play some part in deciding the fates of Kearney and Hogg for a certain trip next summer.

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