Sport Rugby

Saturday 25 November 2017

Kearney reaching to rediscover best form

Rob Kearney in action during squad training
Rob Kearney in action during squad training
David Kelly

David Kelly

It has been difficult to escape the rather obvious conclusion that Ireland are slowly losing their way in this Six Nations championship.

Take the dying moments of the defeat to Scotland in Edinburgh last month.

A perfect snapshot of imperfection captured in microcosm Ireland's incipient slide into ignominy.

When Rob Kearney blundered his way into Mike Ross, as Ireland vapidly and vainly sought to extricate themselves from another self-excavated cavern of confusion, it was a play that signified the blind desperation that now courses through this team.

Compared to the assurance that once so typified this Irish playing and coaching collective, the decline has been painful to watch while the haemorrhaging of performance levels in world-class talents, such as Kearney, has made for equally grim viewing.

Indeed, in a campaign where rumours swirl on an almost daily basis, there had been some suggestions that were it not for his concussion, Robbie Henshaw's inclusion at full-back might have become the latest in a series of surprises sprung by Declan Kidney and Co.

Regardless of Henshaw's outstanding promise (especially as a successor at outside-centre), that such a prospect would even be contemplated at this juncture indicates not only the confusion amongst the coaches but also the struggles that Kearney has been having with his game.

It is as if the green jersey has served as a uniform swathed in kryptonite for the outlandishly gifted Louth man, a distinction that has not gone unnoticed in the bleachers.

"Very rarely do players of Rob's ability dip below the level of their own high standards," points out former Ireland international Victor Costello.

"There's a certain enforced transition going on in terms of Les Kiss shifting to attack coach after there was such a question mark over who was the backs coach in the World Cup.

"And so, like a lot of the players in this Ireland team at the moment, Rob seems to be more settled under Joe Schmidt at club level than he is at international level because there is less clarity with Ireland.

"And with so many changes in personnel, enforced or otherwise, it's not helping a full-back coming into the line. I don't want to make excuses for him either. He has all the qualities, so Ireland should be just trying to get him on the ball."

Even when he has been on the ball, however, Kearney's reliability has predominantly deserted him in this campaign, typified by that late penalty concession that allowed Owen Farrell to confirm England's win in Dublin when he lumbered hesitantly into the grateful bulk of Courtney Lawes.

It is as if he was unclear as to what to do next. Or what his team-mates were supposed to be doing. And they seemed to have no idea how to respond either.

And so, as Kearney attempts manfully to reclaim some of his form, he joins a lengthening list of players whose reputations are being damaged during this campaign.

Warren Gatland has intimated correctly that reputation cannot be allowed to dominate Lions selection meetings.

Hence, after all three of his direct opponents – Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Goode and Stuart Hogg – outplayed him in the opening three championship games, Kearney's form is a clear and present danger to his chances of replicating his astonishing impact on the 2009 Lions tour.

As he spoke about Hogg following the defeat in Edinburgh, it was clear that an unavoidable anxiety about his current status was subconsciously seeping through Kearney's dismay with Ireland's slump and his own personal dip in fortunes.

"I'd love to go on another Lions tour because it is fantastic to be a part of," he said. "You want to have the best players who are on form in that environment and Stuart and Leigh are definitely up there.

"It's going to be very competitive, but, if Stuart can continue his form against Wales and France, then there is no reason why he wouldn't be well on the way to a first Lions tour."

The irony is that it could be at the expense of Kearney for whom, despite the injury that thieved him of November international and Heineken Cup recognition, it was presumed the Lions No 15 jersey was his to lose.

"I agree he's been overtaken by other players," asserts Costello. "We're not at the stage where 70pc of our players are going on the Lions tours, which is probably where we were at the start of the Six Nations, so now it should all be about personal performance.

"Rob could suffer when it comes to the Lions.

"But Warren Gatland is no fool and even though Rob will be frustrated by his performances, Gatland will know enough about his reputation."

Kearney has suffered occasional troughs before, of course, and not all of them were injury-afflicted either.

He struggled in the aftermath of the 2009 Lions series following the welter of trophies he, Leinster and Ireland collected during that glorious season; his 2011 championship was a write-off with injury.

distance

But he has always been able to bounce back and, last season, he was by some distance the best full-back in European rugby – whether wearing green or blue.

His renewed ability to burst with strength and pace from the back before seeking, and trusting, support runners and then offloading to them, indicated someone who was brimful of confidence.

Ireland, however, seems to have become a real struggle for him of late, recalling an interview he did in these pages last year when he spoke frankly about dealing with self-doubt. "You always have doubts," he admitted. "I play my best rugby when I'm confident and everything is going well.

"Every player goes through doubts and questions their own ability, whether it's fitness, strength, age or ability. I always look at golf and the difference between No 1 and 100 is not ability, it's mental strength that separates them.

"They can overcome those doubts and the questions and move on from it. That makes you stronger because when you have doubts, you know you've had them before and dealt with them.

"The hope is that when you're full of confidence, even if you're having a bad patch, once you're doing the right things off the pitch, the cycle will break. Then you'll be back on top."

As the rest of his team are discovering to their horror, the harder he tries, the tougher it gets.

Irish Independent

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