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Kearney keeping it real

WHEN it comes to Rob Kearney, it always seems to be about perception versus reality.

There is a perception of Kearney as the private school (Clongowes Wood) 'pretty boy', more image than substance, courting a celebrity lifestyle in the social pages with his TV-personality girlfriend.

The reality is a dedicated professional who actively avoids the gossip pages, a grounded 25-year-old far more concerned with working on a 20,000-word thesis on project management than hitting the 'circuit' in search of flashbulbs.

Another perception has Kearney down as the uber-confident, Grand Slam-winning Lion who had the temerity to challenge the Munster ethos at that famous Enfield meeting in 2008 and sees the Leinster and Ireland No 15 jerseys as his by right.

The reality is a player who has had to work his way back from a serious knee injury and who is constantly questioning his position, to the point where he speaks about his "hope to be involved in the Six Nations".

And finally, there is the perception of Kearney as the conservative full-back, who prefers to put his big left boot to the ball rather than taking the counter-attacking option.

The reality is a player who places a huge importance on security but says he is always willing to have a go if he feels it is on and will only use the boot if that is the best option.

Perception versus reality... Kearney's constant battle.

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It seems remarkable, given all he has achieved, that Kearney's status as first-choice full-back for Ireland and Leinster still causes such debate. Ireland's travails at 15 when Kearney was absent for last season's Six Nations should have quelled any dissenters, but they are still ranged against him and, in the internet age, have plenty of platforms to vent on.

The anonymous keyboard warriors were out in force after last weekend's win over Bath when, in one of Leinster's several well-chronicled missed opportunities, he passed inside to Sean O'Brien rather than to Isa Nacewa, who had a clear run-in on his outside.

It fitted snugly into the perception of Kearney not being a natural attacker, and is an issue he is keen to address.

"I'd like to think that 99 times out of 100 I would always see Isa there, or hear him, neither of which was the case on Sunday," he explains. "As well, 99 times out of 100, Sean would have caught my pass and run under the posts and we wouldn't be talking about it now.

"My first and foremost (concern) every week is consistency, being the goalkeeper at the back where you are solid and nothing goes wrong, that is always my priority -- not to play pretty rugby and try something drastic when it is 70-30 against you, because that is not what my team-mates want and that's not what my coaches want. Of course, it is what people sitting watching at home want, flamboyant back-three players who are chancing things.

"I am having a go. But I will only have a go when I am pretty sure it is on. Contrary to perception, I have kicked very little ball this season. I was looking at stats from the World Cup and I kicked 11 balls and they were all in my own '22', whereas the season before that I would have kicked a lot more.

"But that's a team mentality as well; everyone is getting back to counter-attack, because it is not just up to the full-back to counter-attack, there are 14 lads around him who make it happen.

"So, I am pretty happy with my form," he adds. "It was nice to make that break the other day and get some space and just get an opportunity to open the legs, and I would like to get a few more of them. It is a little bit irritating to be boxed off in a certain way but I have confidence in my own ability. I know what I can do."

When Kearney was injured last season, Nacewa was Leinster's stand-out performer from 15 on their march to the title, becoming a cult hero among the province's supporters in the process. This season, Nacewa has been moved to the wing to cater for Kearney's return, and the full-back admits to the situation creating extra pressure.

"It does a bit because everyone is aware of Isa's great season last year. I really enjoy playing alongside him and it works well with a lot of interchanging.

"The worst thing about that is, with Isa back on the wing, if I don't have an up-to-scratch game, everyone is calling for Isa to go back to full-back and then if Isa has a game where he is not 100pc people are saying, 'oh, that's because Isa is on the wing, move him to full-back'.

"It's a bit of a lose-lose but that's normal, you just have to win people back on your side again."

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There has been a lot said about Ireland's World Cup performance but the overwhelming feeling has been one of regret rather than recrimination.

Some, such as Ronan O'Gara, maintain that the Irish were not at the same level of intensity in the quarter-final defeat to Wales as they were in the victories over Australia and Italy.

Kearney is less sure. He sees it quite simply as Wales playing their best rugby for years and deserving their win. Even allowing for the high points, the full-back sees New Zealand 2011 as nothing other than a failure.

"Before the Australia game, our backs were hugely against the wall. If we lost that, Irish rugby was on the verge of breaking," says Kearney. "But that's not to say that, before Wales, we didn't care or that we 'fell in love with ourselves'. I certainly didn't.

"We just made so many errors and it was as good a Welsh performance as I have seen in a long, long time. That's not an excuse, we are professionals and we wanted to win the World Cup and there is no escaping that it was a disappointing campaign.

"There were positive experiences but ultimately we underperformed. When we came home everyone was saying, 'well done' and you're thinking, 'hang on, we still came eighth'. That win against Australia got us so much credit with the public, so it's a weird one."

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Six Nations tournaments post-World Cups always feel a little different as the international four-year cycle begins again and countries look to break with the recent past. However, Kearney is unequivocal when it comes to assessing Ireland's approach -- win now and let the future take care of itself.

"To be involved in the Six Nations would be fantastic and I am just thinking about winning," he says. "If players are thrown in not because they are the best in that position but to build for the next World Cup, you are not giving yourself the best opportunity to win in the Six Nations, which is what players, coaches and the IRFU want. That's more important than planning for the future."

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Leinster's Christmas offering 'Rhapsody in Blue' is an excellent account of the province's European triumph last season, an ideal memento for their supporters, and players. Kearney does not feature prominently, having spent all but the opening rounds on the sidelines recovering from injury. Seven months on, that famous day in Cardiff evokes mixed emotions of pride and regret but it also serves as motivation to claim a central role this time around.

Bath visit the Aviva tomorrow and Kearney is relishing the chance to show what he and his colleagues can do in front of a record crowd.

"I don't want to play too much on last season because sometimes you can let emotion get in the way of these things. I love Heineken Cup rugby and occasions like Saturday and it makes you treasure it, thinking back to last year when I was sitting on the line. You think also of Brian (O'Driscoll) and Shane (Horgan) who are sitting on the line now, it's always a horrible feeling.

"It should be a memorable occasion, playing in front of so many of our supporters. We have a duty to uphold our winning record there and it's a nice time of the year, everyone should be in good form. Hopefully we will give them something to shout about."

It may not be an issue for him yet but Kearney's rugby-playing ability and temperament point to a player who would make an ideal Ireland captain down the line. Perceptions are easily established and hard to erase but for the Leinster and Ireland full-back, now it is all about keeping it real.

Irish Independent