Dave Kearney eager not to be left out in cold as wing battle heats up
DAVE Kearney doesn't need to spot the subtly accumulating snow drifts on his beloved Cooley Mountains to absorb the accelerating advance of the season.
Time is marching on; Joe Schmidt will announce an Ireland squad in the next fortnight and the Louth native hopes, once more, to be in his plans.
After losing a significant swathe of 2014 through injury following his immense contribution to Ireland's championship success, he may have timed his return to fitness with the skill expected of someone who spends much of his life on the wing.
The knee injury sustained in last season's Pro12 semi-final against Ulster not only ruptured his ligament but also his most sustained presence in a green shirt. Kearney was one of only three players to play every minute of the campaign; brother Rob was another.
Alongside comeback kid Andrew Trimble, the two wings were a seemingly immoveable force in the back three as Schmidt's Ireland doggedly asserted European dominion.
By November, Schmidt's overly prescriptive game plan was utterly inured to disruptions in personnel - now both injured, neither Trimble nor Kearney played a minute in the hat-trick of wins.
Unlike last January, Simon Zebo has now emerged as a fully-paid-up member of the Schmidt system, Lion Tommy Bowe, an automatic starter, is fully fit while Fergus McFadden, Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls are also live options.
Hence, the challenge for Kearney is to remain relevant; he has never been a scoring machine and Schmidt was always keener on his defensive, rather than his attacking, duties during Ireland's championship win.
Aside from an opening brace against Samoa from the bench, Kearney hasn't crossed the whitewash for Ireland.
He has scored 15 tries in his 77 Leinster games; Zebo, a stern challenger to retain his November jersey, particularly if Ireland become a little more eager to expand, has scored 32 times in his 78 Munster appearances.
Since scoring in the first half of his seasonal comeback against Treviso, Kearney could do with reminding his erstwhile Leinster coach of his finishing ability in this week's expected bonus-point chase against Castres as the battle for Pool 3 intensifies.
"I'm starting to get back into things fully now," says the 25-year-old. "You feel pressure to deliver straight away, especially when there's so much competition in the squad. There's always big pressure on you to perform.
"I just want to keep building on performances week in, week out and try to get my hands on the ball a bit more and build on that."
Worrying about Ireland is only a sport for those outside the camp on their barstools; for Kearney, maintaining his spot in a Leinster side where even Zane Kirchner, a multi-capped Springbok, would struggle to get a place if fully fit - albeit he has been ruled out for a month with a fractured shin bone - is the primary focus.
"There's definitely a lot of competition there now," he agrees. "Like you say, guys are fit and there are quality players in the backs for Ireland for one thing.
"And I think it's the same here. It's very funny, when you leave the Ireland set-up, you probably expect provincial set-ups to have probably less competition.
"But it's probably different with Leinster for back-three players because there's so many quality guys who can play in the back three, a lot of international players too."
One of them, Fitzgerald, is deputising well at 13 despite his coach's assertion that he is a world-class left wing. Schmidt may have the same opinion.
"I'll just go to the right wing," smiles Kearney. "All our wingers are international class so there is always going to be competition there and it pushes you on as a player.
"If you don't have lads pushing you from behind or trying to get ahead of lads that are in front of you, you are not going to get the best out of yourself. Competition pushes players.
"I played full-back when I was growing up and then went to Leinster and went to the wing. I played right wing last year for Ireland and I played on the left too for Leinster for a few games so I think I can play any position in the back-three.
"I'm not looking to play 10! You can't be restricted to one position. For left wing or right wing I've being able to use both feet, pass off both sides. That's very important. And to have more than one position is always important."
Meanwhile, Jamie Heaslip trained "as normal" yesterday as Leinster ponder whether to risk him this weekend; they will also announce later whether they will risk appealing Jack McGrath's three-week ban for stamping.