Leinster's 'other' Kearney beginning to turn heads
No sentiment for ex-Connacht lock ahead of final, writes Ruaidhri O'Connor
Published 25/05/2016 | 02:30
He is the other Kearney; the man who finds himself sandwiched between the brothers on the Leinster roster and, for all that his face isn't as famous, Mick is also starting to turn heads.
Sure, the knowing glances that are coming his way are less from teenage girls and more from seasoned appreciators of the work of a second-row enforcer but after spending most of this season in the shadows he'll take all the attention he can get.
A native of Clontarf, the 25-year-old took the decision to go west in 2011 with a view to getting game-time and his home province are reaping the rewards this season.
At Connacht, he saw the progress Pat Lam was making but the lure of home proved too strong and, when Leinster came looking, he couldn't resist the chance to don the blue jersey.
He had to wait as a toe injury that had ended his Sportsground career early disrupted his introduction and he only made his debut in February.
Since then, Kearney has made up for lost time and on Friday he caught the eye with an industrious shift in the Leinster engine room.
It was all part of a memorable evening at the RDS and the kind of occasion that drew the Dubliner home, yet he doesn't regret his initial decision to leave and build up a body of work in Galway.
"It gave me the most valuable thing you can get as a rugby player, which is game-time," he said. "I went down and Michael Swift picked up an injury which was very fortunate for me. I picked up loads of game-time at a really high level.
"It is irreplaceable. There's not much point just training. You really do need to be playing rugby week in, week out, whether that's at AIL or 'A' rugby or provincial. If you set your own standard, it is fantastic to go to a place like that and get game-time."
It is the kind of answer IRFU performance director David Nucifora might cut out and send to the players resisting his suggestion they should move provinces.
Kearney was enjoying life in Connacht and saw the progress happening before his eyes, but the lure of home was strong and when the offer came from Leinster he couldn't turn it down.
"I wanted to come home, I wanted to be around my family," he explained. "Connacht were making massive strides under Pat (Lam) and (skills coach) Dave Ellis; (forwards coach) Dan McFarland was leaving but Jimmy Duffy was a super coach just coming in. But I wanted to be home and get the opportunity to be in an environment that has a mass of internationals, specifically I saw it as an opportunity I wanted to take up.
"I'm not really (surprised by Connacht's performances). They have had the structures in place for the last number of years that Pat's been there.
"It was all down to execution. Even when I was there we were losing games by a point or two points. We were finishing seasons with eight or nine losing bonus points.
"Obviously Dave Ellis and (backs coach) Andre Bell are doing fantastic work during their skills blocks and it is carrying over into their performances."
Yet, for all that he will look across the line at Murrayfield on Saturday and see friends, he will have no problem hurtling himself into contact in an attempt to win a first senior medal.
There's no room for sentiment.
"It's fully removed," he agreed. "Obviously, I have a lot of close friends in Galway but I find you always play harder against close friends."
On Friday, he was the only uncapped player in Leinster's pack as Jamie Heaslip and friends cranked up the intensity levels up to Test match standard.
It was the most ferocious performance Kearney has been a part of and it is to his credit that he looked so comfortable in the surrounds. "Without a doubt," he replied when asked if it was the most intense performance he's been a part of.
"The first 20-25 minutes was just a frenetic pace. It was great to play in. But, you were definitely looking for the lungs a little bit after 30, I'd say.
"It is very different opposition this week, but we'll be looking to bring the same pace and intensity this week.
"Johnny (Sexton) and Jamie have a history of being great leaders. To see them getting off the line unbelievably quickly or making big hits, it lifts the rest of the squad. It's infectious.
"Even when you look at Jordi Murphy, he made 25 tackles on the weekend which is a phenomenal stat. When you see guys putting in performances like that, you're so happy to put your shoulder to the wheel."
That intensity will be needed yet again for the final 80 minutes of Kearney's first season in blue and a big performance in the final might just make him a little more recognisable even if he thinks it's unlikely he'll be confused for the other Kearneys any time soon.
"I wouldn't get mistaken for them anyway, two dreamboats walking around," he concluded with a wry smile.