Transition year can make men out of boys – Kearney
ROB KEARNEY sat behind the glass in the BBC's Aviva Stadium studio last Saturday night and watched transition in progress.
At 26, the Leinster, Ireland and Lions full-back is one of the in-betweeners, caught in the middle of the 'golden generation' and the new wave who are beginning to take over the Irish rugby team.
Along with Tommy Bowe and Jamie Heaslip, Kearney is one of the pillars who was involved in the Grand Slam and who is looking to take that experience and use it to lead the revolution. As Monaghan winger Bowe said on Saturday, this is their time and Kearney wants the youngsters to step up to the plate.
Back surgery has derailed his own season, but the Cooley man is hopeful of a January return that will give him a run-in to the Six Nations.
When he comes into camp, he is expecting the likes of Iain Henderson, Dave Kilcoyne, Paddy Jackson, Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall and Simon Zebo to have made the step up and to be ready to lead.
"It is only when you are forced to make changes like this – when you have so many injuries – it really gives guys the opportunity to get an introduction to international rugby and showcase their talents," he said.
"It is very hard for a coach to make those changes until they are forced to, because every coach wants to win by as many points as possible. But you have to move on and you need to build another new core of a team. More often than not, you don't really step up unless you're forced to.
"What I mean by that is that you can sometimes be a passenger and go along with things, you don't really announce yourself as a big game player, a leader, and all those things you need to have in every individual to win big games. It is only when you are forced into this position that you can do that.
"It will be invaluable experience for the Irish squad as we look to the future."
One of those new boys, Zebo, wore the No 15 jersey that Kearney has done his country so proud in over recent years.
On Saturday, the Corkman revealed that he had received a call from the Leinster star in the build-up to his first senior start at full-back and he picked up some crucial pointers.
"I didn't feel like he could do with it at all, Simon's a great player with great ability," Kearney explained, as he launched the National Dairy Council's 'Milk It For All It's Worth: Bring On The Pros' competition.
"I just probably knew that, it being his first game at full-back, that he probably would have appreciated the call. It wasn't in any sort of way that I wanted to offer him advice.
"I was just congratulating him on the opportunity and wishing him the best and if he wanted to have a chat about it, I was there to answer any question he wanted. It wasn't like: 'I'm here, what do you want to know'. I just wanted to wish him luck."
While he is happy to help out now, Kearney might not be as supportive when he is back fit and vying to get his shirt back.
"It was a bit different for me," he said of his international breakthrough. "Myself and Girvan Dempsey were with Leinster and we would have been there every day in the province together. We were together and I learned an awful lot from him.
"With Geordan Murphy, we were vying for the Ireland jersey for two or three years and there is a competitive nature with that. So, he wouldn't really have shared too many tips with me.
"Likewise, if Zebs holds on to the jersey for the next 18 months or so, I'll get competitive and I certainly won't be looking to share any advice with him then. Big time. You have to have that competitive nature to be at the top, it's what drives you."
On Monday, Kearney was awarded the Guinness Rugby Writers' Player of the Year award, something that left him with mixed emotions.
"It is awesome to be recognised for your form last year, that's a nice feeling, because it means that you're doing something good. The fact that this award came into the new season just throws you a little," he acknowledged.
"You are a little bit reluctant to get involved, to speak about the award, to talk about how well it went for Leinster and how close Ireland came on certain occasions. Once the season ends, you want to put it to bed and move on.
"On the night, I spoke about the award being a little bit of a poisoned chalice, because guys often go off the radar the following year and lose form a little. That has to be my primary goal, when I do get back, to try and get back to those heights."
At the moment, his routine is all about rest and recuperation. He is three weeks into a 12-week programme and the hard work begins after six. The need for surgery came as something of a shock, but now he is trying to be as positive as possible about the recovery.
"I had an incident that day in training and I wasn't sure how the scan was going to go," he said. "It was a bit of a surprise, but probably, deep down, I knew that I'd had it for a long time and I knew that this intervention was going to happen.
"I am trying to use a bit of a mantra this time round – trying to sort of believe that things could always be worse – and this makes it easier to cope with everything.
"I know from the first time, with my knee, you can find yourself often getting annoyed or upset and wondering 'why did this have to happen to me?'
"Three months is not the end of the world. Hopefully, I'll get back for the last six, seven months of the season which would be a pretty good return."