'Huge relief' for Kearney as long-awaited return passes off smoothly
IT'S been a long and frustrating journey back from injury for Rob Kearney, but the full-back's accomplished display against Scotland, his first game since injuring his knee last November, was one of the most encouraging aspects to a flat afternoon.
Fielding kicks with his customary calm assurance, Kearney also ran onto the ball with purpose, showing great pace in one break down the left only to be called back for Jonathan Sexton's forward pass.
There is competition for the Ireland No 15 slot, with Geordan Murphy back on the scene and Keith Earls performing excellently there against England last March, but Kearney is happy to be back on track towards reclaiming the jersey that he had made his own under Declan Kidney.
"It's a huge relief," said Kearney, who presented the Ireland medical team with his match jersey afterwards.
"I was nervous all week. I don't usually get nerves beforehand, but it was nice -- a big obstacle gotten over.
"Obviously, the result wasn't what we wanted, but from a personal perspective it was nice to come through 80 minutes.
"I felt really good at times, blowing at other times, but all-in-all I was happy. I've never been in a situation like this before.
"Nine months is a long time, but I felt quite comfortable."
Though this performance would suggest that Kearney is a shoo-in for the Test team in New Zealand, the Louth man is wary of making any assumptions.
"I'd love to play every week, but that's up to Deccie," he said. "I came into the game (with the attitude that) if I had a shocker, I wasn't going to judge myself too harshly on it and if I had a stormer, I wasn't going to lose the run of myself either. However it went, I'd take it and mark it down as one to get back so in terms of that it was nice."
Kearney played the full 80 minutes, moving to the left wing when Felix Jones came on to win his fist cap. Having fought his way back from a career-threatening neck injury, Jones' elevation was richly deserved and he thoroughly enjoyed his first taste of international rugby.
"Getting to play for your country is very special and I was delighted to get on, but then obviously the result wasn't (what we) desired," he said.
"They executed their try very well and sometimes when a side executes very well, you have to hold your hands up and say 'there's not much we could have done'.
"For me, there was a mixture of nerves and excitement, it's a good combination sometimes.
"It's a very competitive squad, there's Rob and Geordan and Gavin (Duffy) there. All you can do each time you get a chance is do your best, and hopefully get put in again at some stage."