Kearney: We know how tough it is at Ravenhill
Published 29/04/2016 | 02:30
As Leinster head into tomorrow's game in Kingspan Stadium, there is one man who has seen it all, and done it all but that doesn't make the trip any less daunting.
Rob Kearney has played in the old and new. Ravenhill then. Kingspan now. But the stadium hasn't lost its appeal.
"It's one of those places that has managed to hold onto what made it great. The supporters are right next to the pitch, it feels like they are right on top of you. They certainly get behind their team but that closeness also means that you are never far away from the supporters decked out in blue either.
"And with it being very accessible to anyone travelling from Leinster it means that it makes for a cracking atmosphere. I think the sold-out signs went up a few weeks ago which is great. As a player you want to play in packed stadia and we can't wait to get going on Saturday."
With a redeveloped RDS Arena in the pipeline and planning due to be submitted this summer, Kearney feels that there are lessons to be learned.
"The RDS is very similar. You walk out of that tunnel and the terrace is right there. The support you get all around the ground is brilliant and I suppose that is the challenge with a new stadium is how you move with the times yet retain what makes a place like the RDS so special. To their credit, I think they have done that very well in Ulster."
Hearing the 173-times-capped Leinster full-back speak so passionately about the place he has called home since his debut in September 2005 makes you appreciate just what a home Guinness Pro12 Play-Off would mean to Leo Cullen's team.
"I think the stats alone are overwhelmingly in favour of the home team. Something like for every four semi-finals the home team wins three of them. That alone is not enough of course but the familiarity, waking up in your own bed the morning of a game, the majority of the supporters wearing blue and roaring you on. That all plays a part in setting the scene for you and in giving you a platform. Nothing more.
"But that's an advantage and in this game where every team has the best of S&C, the best of coaching, of nutrition, of analysis, those little margins and those little advantages you strive for them and if you have them you have to try and make them count."
Which brings us nicely to Ulster. As it stands Leinster are top of the Pro12 but only two points separates first and third. A win in Belfast would do wonders for that home platform that they seek. "It would but we came here at more or less the same stage last season and our season and our qualification for that top four spot was also on the line and we all know what happened then.
"Ulster were also hunting that home semi in the hope that it would mean that they would also contest a final in their own stadium and while it wasn't to be for them in the long run, they still put us to the sword, kept us scoreless in the second half. They played the conditions better than us I suppose and deserved their win."
Ulster this season are again motoring along nicely and without the pressure of that home final are a little bit under the radar. That being said they are in fourth place and boast an impressive 52 tries from their 20 games. There is also the added ingredients that new Director of Rugby Les Kiss will have brought to the table.
"Obviously I would know Les very well from his days with Ireland and would have a huge amount of respect for him. You would expect a Les Kiss team to know their detail and know their defence really well and their stats bear testament to that fact with only 25 tries conceded.
"But they are also mixing a great defence with a potent attack and are third in the try-scoring table so for us the challenge is twofold. Knowing you face a team that concede little and will look to punish you. They also have kickers that will punish indiscretions in Jackson and Pienaar. You can't ask for much more - it's the complete package.
"You might think that a new man in, new voice might take time to settle but they're very much in the mix again this year and it's not an easy place to play in. Only Munster and Scarlets have come away with anything and by the smallest of margins so we know how tough it will be."
The briefest of returns by Tommy Bowe from injury was a welcome sight for fans of Irish Rugby but having scored two tries in his comeback game against Zebre the last day, he has since been ruled out again. As someone who has gone through his own injury woes this season, Kearney has huge sympathy for the Monaghan man.
"Tommy's record speaks for itself and he's a great lad too so on a personal level I was delighted to see him back as nobody likes to see a team-mate go off like that during a World Cup game on the biggest stage.
"From a supporters point of view it's disappointing that he isn't involved on Saturday. So I think everyone is disappointed for him but he'll bounce back."
That ability to bounce back has been needed by Kearney himself this season.
"Yeah, look it's been a frustrating season from an injury point of view but I was happy with how I went against Edinburgh. Of course there are always little things here and there that you look to improve on but the hamstring feels good and I am just really looking forward to the remaining two games and whatever happens after that."
The games and the trip to Belfast can wait. As we wrap up our chat the Louth native is about to head to Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin, a hospital that he tries to connect with as often as he can.
"The work they do in there is fantastic and if a visit can help brighten up the day for some of the kids and their families I am delighted to drop by and do what I can.
"There are incredible people in there doing incredible things on a daily basis and they deserve our support. The kids are remarkable people, such strength of character and thankfully plenty of Leinster fans too so hopefully we can give them something to shout about on Saturday."