Kearney hoping for '15-love' in full-back role
The Guinness PRO14 games played during the 6 Nations are crucial in determining who ends up competing for a place in the final in May, and who starts their summer holidays a few weeks early. This may be a cliché (there are after all 17 other games to be played across the PRO14 regular season) but that doesn't mean it's not true.
The next four weeks will see Leinster face Edinburgh Rugby (tonight at Myreside, live on TG4 at 7.35pm), the reigning champions Scarlets home and away, then new arrivals to the competition from South Africa, the Southern Kings, come to the RDS Arena on 23rd February.
It's fair to say games at this stage of the campaign against Conference rivals are not just crucial, but potentially season-defining.
Now in his 10th season with Leinster, and having come through some frustrating injury spells over the last couple of years, Dave Kearney is eager to make his mark over the next four weeks.
The Louth man started when Edinburgh came to the RDS back in September, with a Jamison Gibson-Park try in the 73rd-minute deciding things to give the province a 21-13 win in a tight game.
"I've had a pretty disrupted season so far, and obviously last season too. I can't wait to get out.
"We're really looking forward to the Edinburgh match. We've a tough group of games coming up over the next month. I just hope to get a bit of consistency in my performance, staying in the picture, performing and staying in the team.
"Every point counts during this block, I suppose it's a cliché - which it probably is. Everything's so important during this period to get the most out of these four games.
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"Edinburgh are a good side - they're the only team to have beaten Glasgow in the PRO14 this season. It won't be straightforward. They're looking to get into the playoffs as well and aren't far off the top three, so we both have a lot to play for.
"We're not the only squad in this position where you're losing players to 6 Nations and international teams. There's a big onus on lads who are playing and lads who probably haven't played as much over the last few months. It's up to that squad then to get as much as they can out of this block. If things go well, you win all your games, then you're in a really good position towards the end of the season when quarter-finals and semi-finals roll around."
Kearney will start at full-back in this evening's game against Richard Cockerill's side. Usually deployed on the left or right wing, this will be his first start in the Leinster number 15 shirt in almost three years.
"I grew up playing full-back but I haven't really played there too much in the last few years. I maybe did a few times under Matt O'Connor.
"It's vastly different from playing on the wing. You probably have a lot more to do from 15, a lot more responsibility. You get your hands on the ball more. In some games you're on the wings on the edges waiting for the ball and it can be frustrating. But at full-back you can get involved a bit more and come in at first receiver."
With 118 Leinster caps to his name, not to mention 17 senior international appearances, a 6 Nations winners medal and four games at a Rugby World Cup under his belt, Kearney will be one of the more experienced players in tonight's squad.
By contrast, fellow Clongowes man, Will Connors, and Ciarán Frawley, both Leinster Academy players, are in line to make their first senior Leinster appearances.
"It's always such an exciting time that first cap, the first time being involved in the 23," Kearney said when asked about the two debutants.
"It's really exciting. The lads have worked hard in training and have done really well. Frawls is covering that '10' position too, so he needs to know a lot. A lot of pressure will come on him as well if he does come in. But he's definitely up for it. Watching him training, he's a very composed and skilful player. I've no doubt that they're both going to go well. We've a good squad going over there with plenty of experience."
With young players like Connors and Frawley coming into the team over the next few weeks, senior players will need to be there to advise, make themselves available for a quick chat, and guide up-and-coming players through these big games.
Kearney has plenty of experience to call on, but when it comes to other senior squad members that will be required to lead over the coming days and weeks, a soon-to-be fellow Leinster centurion is the name that comes to mind.
"We've quite a young squad at the minute. There's a lot of lads that are stepping up and winning first caps or training with the senior squad for the first time.
"Then there's Benty (Michael Bent) who's making his 100th appearance in his sixth season - it's really impressive. It's important that the senior players, like Benty, can give guidance and mentor a few of the younger guys who might be coming up."
While the next four weeks will be crucial in determining where teams finish up in the two PRO14 Conferences, this is also an important time for the squad to build momentum.
After tonight's game against Edinburgh it's back-to-back home games against Scarlets and Southern Kings, before a trip to Llanelli on the first weekend in March. Then, after a two-week break, the team travel to face Ospreys.
And then the big one: the reigning European champions at the Aviva.
These games come around quickly, with little margin for error. But if players want to be involved when the season reaches the homestretch, now is the time to put in big performances and state your case.
"Being at HQ with Leo (Cullen), Stuart (Lancaster), Girv (Girvan Dempsey) and all the coaches during this four-week period is really important. It's another chance to show what you can do on the pitch. We train every day so you're getting some good reps in in training and playing games as well. And then you're playing a bit more over the next few weeks because there are players missing. The coaches always say that, during this four-week period, if players go well they'll be rewarded and start some big games when everybody does come back."