Rob Kearney: 'Inside my head has been a dark place for the last few months'
Published 07/11/2016 | 02:30
Some players don't pay attention to the critics and choose block the noise out. Not Rob Kearney. The Ireland full-back is acutely aware that he isn't flavour of the month, that there is a vocal contingent out there who want his outstanding Test career to be over.
He knows his form hasn't been where it needs to be over the past injury-riddled 18 months and, if he was in any doubt, Joe Schmidt reminded him before kick-off at Soldier Field. The New Zealander showed his faith in a player with whom he has been through a lot. He expected to be repaid and told him so.
The Louth man responded with perhaps his greatest attacking performance in a green jersey. Whether it rivalled his displays as a Lion in 2009 can be debated, but he rolled back the years with an all-round display.
Personally, he felt there was room for improvement but even that drive to be better couldn't take away from the satisfaction of things finally going his way.
So, amid the outpouring of joy across the green swathes in Chicago and beyond, there was a moment of reflection, of relief and of a return to form.
"It's been a tough enough 18 months. Just, first and foremost, my body has not been where it has been," Kearney said. "Then on the back of that, you're not playing to your potential and people get on your case, you get on your own case.
"Inside my head has been a dark enough place in the last few months.
"I wasn't sure if I was going to be selected this week, and I'm just glad I was able to repay Joe and my fellow players the trust that has been shown.
"But there's still lots of stuff to work on, it wasn't a perfect performance by any means."
His belief was shaken, so how did he get it back?
"You don't, it's been tough," he said. "I tell you how I got my confidence back - it was one high ball and one line-break. I've been waiting for a spark, something like that, for so long and this week I just said, 'Don't wait, just go try and make something happen with the shackles free'.
"I've been in those moments before and things haven't gone your way. So I won't get carried away by any means, but it's nice to be back on the horse a little bit, for how long I don't know."
For 18 months, Kearney's hamstrings have kept him from reaching his potential. He was touch and go throughout the World Cup, but still delivered a crucial try against France and then the persistent problems disrupted his Six Nations campaign and kept him out of the summer tour of South Africa. So, the No 15 shirt that's effectively been his own since 2008 has been shared by Simon Zebo, Jared Payne and Tiernan O'Halloran.
Plenty of armchair critics didn't want him to get it back, but the most important reviewer of all, Schmidt, kept faith.
"He did, a huge amount of faith," Kearney said. "I was glad to be able to repay it a little bit. I'm sure he'll have lots of things for me throughout the week - a few missed tackles and some coverage in the backfield, I might have got caught out once or twice.
"He pulled me aside before the game and he said, 'You need a big one today'. It wasn't ideal, but it was good."
Schmidt has been Kearney's coach since he arrived at Leinster in 2010 and perhaps he knew what his full-back needed.
"Maybe he did. We've been together a long time now from when he first came to Leinster," the Louth man conceded.
"Maybe that was the one-liner that I need to put the fear of God into me."
Perhaps the last time Kearney hit these heights in green was on that fateful day at the Aviva Stadium in 2013 when Ireland just couldn't hold on.
The backdrop was very different at Soldier Field, but the game unfolded in eerily familiar circumstances. Yet, when the endgame loomed there were marked differences about how this team handled things.
"It was unbelievable," he said.
"When they got their few tries and they had their purple patch, we came back under the sticks and... We were right back in the Aviva in 2013 when we were under our sticks after losing the game.
"You learn from those experiences and I think we played and went to the edge once, and Zeebs (Simon Zebo) kicked that ball down the line.
"That was a huge play, whereas maybe back in 2013 we would have just kicked off first phase and let them come back at us. It's little intricacies likes that that you can't see them from the spectator watching, but to us it was a big moment in how far we've come maybe."
Kearney has been part of the Ireland fabric for almost a decade, but two of his most storied team-mates, Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, were in the stands at Soldier Field, Sean O'Brien, Peter O'Mahony, Keith Earls and Iain Henderson, were back home.
"We've always seen that with this team," he said. "We've got defence and attack systems and if you've got a number from 25 to 30 guys who can fit in and do the things that are expected of you, it's less about the individual and more about the collective.
"If you work hard and do the things that you've been working on. The preparation time that we've had has been minimal but I haven't felt as prepared for a game in a long, long time.
"Everyone just fronted up and did what was expected."
It was the kind of day every player wants to be involved in and Kearney knew that more than anyone. After the game, he spoke to his brother Dave who was ruled out with injury and while he could tell he was chuffed he also sensed the regret.
"It's moments like these it's tough for him, he's obviously really proud of my performance and the team's performance but he's really disappointed to be missing out as well, given the contribution he had back in 2013," he said.
"I'm sure he's not the only one, there are loads of guys."
And then there's Joey Carbery with the world at his feet. Eleven senior appearances and he's beaten the All Blacks on his first cap.
Here is Kearney, a 73-cap veteran, pouring out his soul and across the dressing-room is a kid from Athy, via Auckland, can come on to the biggest stage with the game going against him for his first cap and deliver.
"To come on and he looked so comfortable when he kicked one really important ball down into the left corner and one kick at goal," Kearney said with a smile. "It's fairy-tale stuff for him, isn't it? I just told him he has balls of steel!"
It was time to go off and enjoy the Chicago night. History deserves to be celebrated.
But there is a return fixture to be negotiated in two weeks' time and Kearney is fully aware of what's coming.
"They'll be back, they'll be wounded," he said.
"They're a class side. Their lineout was not functioning really today and they had a fair few handling errors. We're under no illusions what's coming."
Schmidt's influence will have him switching focus quickly, but this was one to savour. The doubters have been silenced.