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Sunday 19 November 2017

Kearney can make famous name his own

Leinster star to rise out of brother’s shadow as opportunity knocks with province and country

Dave Kearney is on the
verge of joining older
brother Rob as a full
Ireland international
Dave Kearney is on the verge of joining older brother Rob as a full Ireland international

Hugh Farrelly

"WHEN I was living in London in the 1960s, I was doing a line with Jimmy Greaves' sister."

"Really? What was her name?"

"Dunno, everyone knew her as 'Jimmy Greaves' sister' ... nice girl though."

Residents' bar conversations at weddings mostly disappear into the ether, but that exchange came to mind this week when assessing the progress made by Leinster's Dave Kearney ahead of the most important period in the 22-year-old's career.

For the last few years, Kearney has had to put up with 'Dannii Minogue syndrome' where one's achievements in life are qualified by the landmarks reached by an elder sibling who has gone before.

It can become hard to maintain a hold on your own identity when you are routinely addressed, introduced and referenced in the context of a more famous family member, but this season has seen 'Rob Kearney's brother' start to emerge in his own right and, though he can do nothing about the need to play catch-up, Dave is rapidly closing ground.

When it comes to Ireland's sporting brothers, the Wallaces stand apart. Richard, Paul and David were all superb servants of the game and it was the standards set by the brother who had gone before which inspired Paul and then David to have such productive careers.

AMBITIONS

Charlie Mulqueen covers the issue comprehensively in his book 'Brothers in Rugby', outlining how the Wallace, Spring, Doyle and Easterby siblings fed off each other to further their own ambitions, and the Kearneys are in there too, with the author convinced that Dave's elevation to international rugby next to Rob is less a possibility than an inevitability.

He has come pretty close already, scoring a try in the Ireland Wolfhounds' narrow defeat by England last January, his second 'A' cap after playing in the same fixture the previous season.

That performance, allied to a backline shuffle following the withdrawal of Keith Earls, saw Kearney make the bench for Ireland's Six Nations opener against Wales, allowing him to line up next to his brother for the anthems but not onto the pitch during the course of that dispiriting defeat.

However, with Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald out of Ireland's summer tour to New Zealand, there is an opening for Kearney to make the squad and even the Test team if he continues the excellent form he has shown for Leinster this season.

The problem is, with just two games left before that touring party is announced, Saturday's Pro12 semi-final against Glasgow and the following weekend's Heineken Cup final clash with Ulster, time is, once again, against him, and the battle for the vacant slot next to Rob and Isa Nacewa in the Leinster back three is intense.

Coach Joe Schmidt has serious wide operators such as Andrew Conway and Fionn Carr on his books, but the principal competition comes from Fergus McFadden, who would rather be located in midfield (and preferably in the 12 jersey) but has shown his capacity for top-class performances on the wing in the past.

Ireland-wise, there is also the challenge from Munster's Simon Zebo and Ulster's Craig Gilroy, both enjoying eye-catching breakthrough seasons, but Kearney, over the course of 19 appearances, and 18 starts, for Leinster this season looks ready to move up to the next level.

"Dave has done very well," agrees Leinster assistant coach, Richie Murphy. "His progress from 18 months ago has been massive, in terms of skill levels, game management and understanding his position. He has worked very hard to get where he has and we have been very happy with him over the year."

As well as possessing the fielding skills that have defined his brother's standing as one of the game's finest full-backs, the younger Kearney also has a good rugby brain and genuine gas to go with it -- perhaps not quite as fast as Carr, but close. His ability to surge onto possession or take off from a standing start almost always guarantees ground-gain when he is on the ball.

"He is a quite a physical player as well," adds Murphy. "The big thing about Dave and Rob is that they play with a freedom, they are willing to have a go and that definitely suits them and us."

Although Fitzgerald may be out, Dave knows better than to take anything for granted, and kicks for touch when asked about the next, critical, few weeks in his journey.

"Even with Luke gone, there is still plenty of competition for that spot. I'd love to be able to tell you but you'd have to ask Joe on that one," he says.

"I'm easy enough (playing left or right wing). I'd take whichever one I can get. I suppose the right (suits) because I am right-footed. Every week you take to the pitch there is always an opportunity for somebody.

"Even against the Dragons last week, when nothing was going to come from the game because we were already in the semis, it was important to have a good game because if you play well, you are in with a shout the next week."

He did and is, having done his bit from full-back as a Leinster team containing no starters from the Heineken Cup semi-final win over Clermont fashioned an excellent victory in Wales.

But it is that wing spot he covets, the one that is also available in New Zealand, although he again bolts for cover when that topic is raised. "If I was involved, I would be delighted. Every game now is going to be important, but I haven't really thought about it a lot, it is just every week, one at a time."

Being in the direct glare of the spotlight, rather than the reflected glow from Rob, is an unaccustomed feeling for Kearney Jnr and there is an air of nervousness about him which contrasts starkly with the confidence he brings to his play. However, the attention is only to increase and Kearney's nerves are certain to dissipate as he continues to stand apart.

Jimmy Greaves' sister may have struggled to escape the family shackles, but you suspect the same fate will not befall Rob's younger brother.

The next few weeks could define his career, and Dave Kearney stands poised to make a name for himself.

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