Wednesday 18 September 2019

'We could hear gunshots going off' - Rob Kearney details edgy build up to All Blacks victory in Soldier Field

Rob Kearney celebrates with team-mate Donnacha Ryan after beating the All Blacks
Rob Kearney celebrates with team-mate Donnacha Ryan after beating the All Blacks
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Chicago, round two, and one suspects that the IRFU won't be in a rush to use the same training facilities as they did two years ago.

Come match day at Soldier Field, pretty much everything went right for Ireland, who finally beat the All Blacks for the first time at the 29th attempt.

However, behind the scenes during the build-up it wasn't quite as plain sailing, which in many ways makes the stunning achievement in the Windy City all the more impressive.

Finding a grass pitch of a certain standard that wasn't in use proved more difficult than first imagined and once they eventually settled on one, it didn't exactly live up to the standards that the players have become so accustomed to.

The travel, coupled with the fact that the training week was altogether different to the norm, complicated matters even further.

The players were uncharacteristically out of kilter in their one pitch session in Chicago on the Thursday and Joe Schmidt didn't shy away from letting them know about it.

Chicago was a turning point in Rob Kearney’s career, as he delivered a masterful performance in the victory over New Zealand. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Chicago was a turning point in Rob Kearney’s career, as he delivered a masterful performance in the victory over New Zealand. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The Kiwi is notorious in terms of the standards he demands from everyone around him and while he is no stranger to handing out a healthy dose of Alex Ferguson-esque 'hairdryer treatment', to do it so close to a game was very much out of character.

"He blasted us, it was the morning of the captain's run," Rob Kearney tells the Irish Independent.

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"We had trained on the Monday, which was a fine session. We travelled on the Monday night, didn't train Tuesday, didn't train Wednesday. So we were chasing things a bit.

Atrocious

"We were training on the worst pitch I have ever trained on - it was a bog. There were shootings going on around the place. It was legit. We could hear gunshots going off.

"The standard of our session was atrocious - we couldn't blame a few gunshots for that! We just weren't fully switched on, we were a fair bit off the mark.

"We got up on Thursday ready to go and he opened up on us. I suppose his rationale for it was, 'I might as well open up on you now instead of Monday morning, if I can see what's coming down the line'.

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Rob Kearney
Rob Kearney

"It was a frosty enough journey to the captain's run! We did it really early in the morning to avoid the Cubs' tour. And the rest is history.

"He does lose it, but a lot of the time it will be earlier on in the week and then when Friday comes you're sort of back into the rebuilding stage.

"It was probably the timing of it that was a little bit unusual. He would have just used footage of the training the day before and showcased all the bad stuff we were doing and said 'if you reproduce this tomorrow, you are going to get absolutely opened up'.

"It set the tone. It probably brought everyone back down to reality a bit and just made us realise: 'Jesus, if we don't get our act together here...'

"The thing about playing the All Blacks, certainly in my time, there have been days when you don't turn up and they'll put 30, 40, even a 60-0 on you. You have to be so on your game the day you play them."

Ireland were certainly on their game that Saturday, and they delivered a performance for the ages to cement their place in history.

This weekend's task against Italy is not on the same scale, but nevertheless it brings its own challenges.

This time, the hype around the All Blacks is put on hold for another few weeks, and as well as that the Cubs are not going for their first World Series in 108 years.

After Ireland beat his New Zealand side, Steve Hansen claimed that some of his players got caught up in the fanfare, whereas Ireland stayed well clear, as Kearney explains.

"One thing looking back is I remember at the time thinking, 'oh brilliant, all the New Zealand lads got involved in the Cubs' parade'. They were out walking in it, we didn't do any of that. We went up to the top of our hotel for 20 minutes, we looked out through the whole city and then we got back into the mode.

"It was probably an easy distraction at the time so maybe they did take their eye off the ball a little bit. If he (Hansen) gave them a bollicking for it, it might suggest that they did."

Despite the fact that he was 30 at the time, that week in Chicago proved to be a pivotal point in Kearney's career.

By his own admission, he came into the game with very little form and when Schmidt called him over for a quiet word shortly before kick-off, he knew what was coming.

"It probably was a bit of a turning point because I was under a fair bit of pressure. My body wasn't in a great place. I hadn't played a huge amount. It's never nice when the coach pulls you aside before the game and says 'you need a big one'.

"It does put extra pressure on you, but I remember in the warm-up, it's as good as I had felt in a few months.

"So mentally you can be in a great place, all well and good, but if you're not getting the same feedback from your body, it can be difficult.

"It was probably a combination of physically feeling good and mentally just being like 'right, have a crack, you have nothing to lose'.

Nothing to lose, everything to gain, and how Kearney and his team-mates delivered in spades.

This week in Chicago will evoke joyous memories for the Ireland team and supporters before the All Blacks come to Dublin on November 17.

"It probably does lessen the fear factor a little bit, it gives you a huge amount of belief," Kearney adds.

"I think that was the 10th time I played them. You go your whole career saying: 'On our day, if we produce our best game, we can beat the All Blacks. We can do it, we can do it.'

"But when you don't actually do it, there is always just a small part in the back of your head that says, 'can you really do it?' So from that perspective, it was really important to actually be able to beat them.

"Now you have got a group of players who have beaten every team in the world over the last couple of years. So when World Cup time does come, there is a greater sense of belief."

Rob Kearney is an Audi ambassador and was speaking ahead of the launch of the new 191 range.

Irish Independent

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