Rob Kearney admits he has fallen behind in Lions race
IRELAND full-back Rob Kearney concedes he has slipped behind Wales' Leigh Halfpenny in their Lions duel after struggling to showcase his attacking skills in the RBS 6 Nations.
The Celtic rivals are expected to embark on the summer tour to Australia but it is Halfpenny who has a potentially unassailable lead in the race to win the number 15 jersey for the Test series.
The 24-year-old's goalkicking and successive man of the match displays against France and Italy have been instrumental in hauling Wales into title contention heading into the final weekend.
Kearney won three Lions caps in South Africa four years ago and is the man in possession, but could yet miss out on the tour altogether should coach Warren Gatland prefer Scotland's Stuart Hogg.
Events have conspired against the 2012 European player of the year, who has been playing in a team decimated by injury against opposition that have worked out it is best to keep the ball out of his hands.
"Leigh's goalkicking alone has made him the standout full-back of the Six Nations. Wales have won a huge amount of games with his kicking skills," Kearney said.
"For me it's quite frustrating because receiving kicks was always a great way to get into games, get some ball and display my strengths.
"That's something I've definitely struggled with throughout this campaign. It shows a little bit as well in terms of my own touches.
"It's a case of trying to not get too frustrated by it and trying to find other ways to get into the game, although that hasn't been helped by the conditions we've been playing in.
"Last weekend against France was only my seventh start this season because of injury. I always think it's around six, seven or eight games that you start getting back into the run of things."
There are few more reliable full-backs than Kearney, whose displays in challenging weather conditions against England and France were exemplary, even if he was inevitably muted in attack.
Saturday's clash with Italy presents a final chance to impress Gatland on the international stage, but the 26-year-old believes the Kiwi will look beyond the Six Nations to inform his opinion.
"Of course it crosses your mind that this weekend is the last major stage to impress Lions selectors, but selection will have been going on throughout the last year," he said.
"Although a huge amount of emphasis has been put on the Six Nations, it's not the be-all and end-all.
"It's not the only shop window to stake your claim. It's important to recognise that when the team does well, individuals do well.
"Once you start trying to play as individuals, that's when the team suffers. Ultimately then the player will suffer."
The disappointment of Ireland's Six Nations has been heightened by the reality that for all their injuries, they still manoeuvred themselves into winning positions against England, Scotland and France.
Instead they enter the final weekend locked in a three-way battle to escape a first wooden spoon since 1998, although victory could be enough to seal a third-place finish in a tournament that has been of low calibre.
"My message to the team going to Rome is 'win'. There's a big difference between finishing third and finishing sixth. That's a big jump there," Kearney said.
"There are a lot of guys in the team who haven't really experienced what winning for their country feels like.
"Winning Six Nations games outweighs winning big Heineken Cup matches for your province enormously.
"We're looking to rebuild, get back on track and start competing for silverware again.
"Where we finish this year will have a huge bearing on that. It's about finishing on a high, finishing with a win and getting this team back on track.
"To an extent it's unfair to judge the performance of the team and management on this Six Nations.
"But when you look at the likes of the Scotland game when players just didn't finish things off, we need to be held accountable for that.
"Against France we produced an improved performance and played quite well, but injuries cost us a little bit at the end and that's maybe the time to allow us more leeway in terms of analysis.
"But we should have beaten Scotland and didn't, so that's a day when we should have been judged more harshly."