Sunday 4 December 2016

Alan Quinlan: Rob Kearney silences critics with true warrior display in Soldier Field

Alan Quinlan

Published 12/11/2016 | 02:30

Schmidt took what commentators considered the conservative option and opted for Kearney. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Schmidt took what commentators considered the conservative option and opted for Kearney. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rob Kearney walked into Soldier Field last week with his reputation on the line. Memories of what he had achieved in 2009, when in the space of a few months he went from winning the Grand Slam to starting with the British and Irish Lions (with a Leinster Heineken Cup success sandwiched in between) had faded away.

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In the fickle world of social media, all that seemed to matter was the here and now. European Player of the Year in 2012? No one seemed to remember.

No one, that is, except Joe Schmidt.

Under pressure to relocate Jared Payne from outside centre to full-back - which would have resulted in a promotion for Garry Ringrose - Schmidt took what commentators considered the conservative option and opted for Kearney.

Confined

Still, doubts remained. Kearney's injury issues had confined him to a little over ten hours of rugby for Leinster last year. With Ireland, he hadn't played since February and, if we're being honest, he hadn't played like the old Rob Kearney for some considerable time.

Was this why Schmidt sidled up to him during the warm-up last Saturday to quietly say, 'We need a big one from you today?'

You suspect it was. You suspect he knew the type of character he was dealing with, a player who would be motivated rather than intimidated by that type of comment.

Bearing all this in mind, the performance he produced last Saturday reflected the depth of his substantial spirit and skill, something I saw with my own eyes when he first broke into the Irish team nearly a decade ago.

Then he was a raw kid, surrounded by class in the Leinster back-line, and a player who you wondered would get the opportunities to fully develop.

"You're from Louth, as much of a bogger as I am," I joked with him. "Surround yourself with proper culchies. Sign for Munster." Behind the smiles, I was serious, though, because I liked the way he handled himself in training.

When the going got tough, he got stuck in. If a rucking session got a bit tasty, he didn't hide - but instead gave back what he got. Mentally and physically tough, I could see from an early age that he'd go on to achieve the things he did: three Heineken Cups, three Six Nations titles, two tours with the Lions.

And I can see why Schmidt was shrewd enough to trust him last week - because while strategies are hugely significant in the modern game, there is still a fundamental requirement from every player before you go out and play.

You have to be brave. Physically, morally, you need to be willing to go into the trenches and put your body on the line and even if that sounds somewhat simplistic or old-fashioned, it is also a reality.

Right through my career, I used to love looking across the dressing room and staring at the eyes of my team-mates and seeing real intent. You always wanted tough guys going into battle with you.

You always saw that with Kearney. Then, in Chicago last Saturday, we saw it not just from him but from every Irish player.

No one expected them to win but at crucial stages the leaders came to the fore - Rory Best, Conor Murray, Jared Payne and Kearney. By sheer force of will, they made that victory happen.

And all of a sudden the doubts about Kearney's suitability for the job disappeared. "My head hasn't been in a good place this last while," he said afterwards. "All those injuries have got me down."

If self-doubt was eating away at him beforehand, then he decided from the moment Schmidt spoke to him, that he had to front up.

He always has. I was there when his Ireland career began, nine years ago on a tour to Argentina. There was a warmth about his personality, a willingness to chat to everyone, to engage in the craic and then, when training was about to begin, he would put his game-face on.

At that stage I hadn't seen enough of him to know how good he would become but soon we would get a fair idea of how brilliant a player he'd become.

Secure in the air against opposition ball, better still, he'd fire Garryowens into the sky and reclaim those balls as well. There was an edge to him. Normally you expect forwards to beat up backs in physical contests. But he tore into much bigger men. Yet even the really talented players have their weaknesses. Rob didn't have out-and-out gas and pre-Chicago, the issue of his pace was one of the questions being asked of him.

But with the pressure on, he stood up to be counted.

Just like he did in 2009.

A month before that Six Nations tournament, we met up in Enfield for a mini-camp to review our performances in the November Series. Declan Kidney was Ireland coach and split us up into small groups to get feedback from us.

Rob - who had only 11 caps to his name at that stage - stated: "I feel Munster's players show more passion for their province than their country."

Majority

"F*** me," I thought as soon as I heard that. "That's wrong." But I also thought it was a brave statement to make. The easy option for him was to say nothing, especially as the vast majority of that squad had been there for a long time. What he said wasn't what we wanted to hear but it had an impact.

Consciously we all decided we needed to work on this issue and from there on in we all made more of an effort to become a tighter unit. The group came of age. So did Rob.

The team won a Grand Slam, Rob went on to become a mainstay in the side, win three Heineken Cups and become a British and Irish Lion. He backed up his statement.

And then last Saturday he backed up Schmidt's declaration of faith, fully justifying his selection by producing an outstanding display. Sometimes you need an old dog for the hard road.

And sometimes you need a pup who doesn't know fear. That, in Chicago, was Joey Carbery. Today we'll see Ringrose and Jack O'Donoghue for the first time.

A door has opened. It's up to them to walk through it.

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