Lions lure focusing minds – Kearney
THE accelerating interest in the upcoming Lions tour is unsurprising, given the presence of Warren Gatland at Ireland's Carton House base yesterday.
The Lions coach cut an unmistakeable figure at the team's training session in the morning, and quiet though he was at the afternoon's squad meeting, his red jacket made it impossible not to notice him.
"Yes, it's hard not to see the coach of the Lions over on the sideline watching training," acknowledged full-back Rob Kearney.
"I would say that it upped guys' concentration levels by a few percent certainly. But I don't think that's a bad reflection on us at all, because it is a big deal to have him around the camp.
"And sometimes it's good to have those little things to sharpen the mind."
Ireland's Six Nations campaign has fluctuated wildly, from the sublime of the Millennium Stadium on the opening day to the ridiculous of Murrayfield when they blew 76pc possession to lose to an extremely ordinary Scotland side.
The fear for the players, on an individual level, is that the repercussions of those results and, more importantly, performances, will have a negative impact on their chances of selection in Gatland's squad for the tour to Australia.
"The Six Nations is a big shop window for the Lions certainly.
"And the team that wins the championship usually has the biggest representation," admitted Kearney. "We did four years ago. But the players also realise that the (Lions) squad will be picked on guys' performances over the last year."
Kearney was the Test full-back in South Africa four years ago and faces a difficult battle to keep hold of that jersey, given the quality of those challenging, especially Wales' Leigh Halfpenny.
At his best, though, he has few peers. He was outstanding in South Africa and his competitive spirit will not let him give up the jersey lightly.
"You do keep an eye on how other fellas are going alright. Of course you do. Anyone who tells you otherwise is, I would suggest, telling you fibs," he joked.
"But it's a dangerous game to play. You have to focus on the now and your country and what's in front of you.
"If you become distracted by outside influences, you run the risk of errors creeping into your game. It's about controlling what you can."
Kearney's performances have been steadily improving as the competition has progressed, and he played his best game against France at the weekend.
His sluggish start is understandable when it's remembered that he has only recently returned from injury.
"I'm fully aware that my performances haven't been setting the world alight," he said.
"Last weekend was only my seventh game this season and it always takes around six or eight games before you get back fully into it after a lay-off through injury.
"Conditions haven't helped me either. It's difficult to get into those types of games and I have found that a lot of teams are kicking less and less to our back three, so I'm finding it harder to get into the game.
"But I think it's important that I have to stay patient with it. Once you start forcing the game, that's when your own errors start to creep in – and as a full-back that has to be your primary goal, that you limit as many errors as possible."
A reference to Ireland's camp being akin to an episode of 1970s combat hospital TV show 'Mash' drew a wry chuckle from Kearney.
Despite the horrendous injury situation, the team has been dealing with, he insists the mood has been excellent.
"I've been in camps when it has come to the last week and you just can't wait to get out of there. That's certainly not the case here," he said.
"I think it's a combination of having the younger fellas around the place bringing enthusiasm to it and, particularly for me, the quality of the training sessions.
"It's very important that you enjoy training and I certainly am. There's no suggestion of a dark cloud hanging over us at all."
Ireland's championship concludes in Rome, and Kearney has laid the team a challenge – to finish the game strongly and show that they are capable of scoring in the last quarter of matches, something they have failed to do in all four outings to date.
"We need a big second 40 minutes this weekend regardless of what the score is. We need to prove that we're not a 40-minute team," he said.
"Not scoring in the final quarter of matches has become a pattern, that's why we need a big second 40 this week.
"It's just important that after the break we take to the field still looking to play rugby and striving to get scores.
"In that second 40 minutes (against France) there weren't a huge amount of opportunities for us. So hopefully this week it will be different for us."
It's been a contrasting season. At one stage Ireland were Grand Slam contenders and then, at worst, championship contenders.
"And had we lost last weekend we'd have been contenders for the (Wooden) Spoon," admitted Kearney. "For that reason alone we have to take positives from not losing to France, (and not) judge solely on our performance against Scotland.
"That was a poor performance. It was a game we should have won and we didn't. We did improve on that.
"Once we're improving every week and we're learning from the mistakes that we made the week before, we have to be happy in some regards that we're not going backwards."