Kearney hitting full throttle for 'make-or-break' clash
AS the dull pain that accompanies an anticlimax washed over the country in the wake of Ireland's defeat to Scotland, Rob Kearney's first phone call was to Michael Cheika.
"I want to play this week," was the gist of the conversation. Leinster players returning from front-line international duty were due to be off until Thursday that week. But Kearney, stung from the overblown reaction to his form during the Six Nations campaign and disappointed with his own performance against Italy, wanted to get back in action immediately.
"It was important to get a couple of games in after the Scotland match given that the Six Nations ended on a bad note for us and the next really big game was against Clermont (in the Heineken Cup quarter-final) coming up on Friday," said the Louthman.
"So to get those two games in between (against Connacht and Munster) and pick up a couple of tries and run a bit of ball back is always good. I'm feeling confident and hopefully things can keep going in the upward spiral."
A high-profile blunder when his charged-down clearance kick led to an Italian try sparked a wave of criticism for the man who was lauded as the best full-back in the world after the Lions tour last summer. Was the reaction exaggerated?
"It probably was. Certainly, I felt that way but it's water off a duck's back.
"The opening game against Italy I was off-line myself, I didn't have my best game and I picked up the injury 20 minutes into the French game and to try and come off the bench with a recovering knee injury for the last two games, you are never going to be fully firing. It was nice to get straight back into the Magners League."
A crucial try against Connacht helped Leinster avoid an embarrassing defeat in the RDS while Kearney also touched down as they completed a seasonal double over Munster in Thomond Park last Friday, which suggests the full-back is returning to the form of 2009.
And Cheika's side will need the former Clongowes star at his best when they take on Clermont tomorrow night, who Ian McGeechan labelled the "best team in the competition". The French side could also be described as the unluckiest team in Europe, having been beaten in the last three Top 14 finals.
"They are a quality side, they are playing really well at the moment, they are very powerful and strong and they've got some explosive, quick backs that can finish off tries."
"Our defence is going to be hugely important for us. The breakdown, too, but most of all I think we need to take the two or three opportunities when we get them.
"Your defence is your springboard to attack and unless you are stopping teams scoring it doesn't matter how many you score yourself, so they come hand in hand. Provided our defence stays as strong as last week and we can get a couple of tries, keep our discipline and get our kicks at goal, because that was off a little bit, then hopefully we'll be good to go."
In terms of Leinster's big European dates, arguably only the semi-finals against Munster have been more eagerly anticipated than tomorrow night's RDS showdown. Leinster fans will also get their first glimpse of the man set to replace the Stade Francais-bound Cheika, Clermont's assistant coach Josef Schmidt.
Clermont have once again secured a play-off spot in the Top 14 with two games remaining in the regular season, but, having lost out in the final on 10 previous occasions, the Bouclier de Brennus has something of a mythical quality about it for them.
Leinster are also at war on two fronts, but, unlike their opponents, the Heineken Cup is the obvious priority.
"It's a huge week for us," Kearney said. "Since the Six Nations ended all focus has been on the Heineken Cup. It's make or break for us, it's Cup football, we have to win."