Tuesday 23 July 2019

'There were times I didn't want the ball' - Rob Kearney admits ongoing injuries led to him doubting himself

Leinster's Rob Kearney. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Leinster's Rob Kearney. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Rob Kearney has learned to trust his body again, because for a while there he was unsure how it would react when operating at full tilt.

A few niggling injuries, as well as a lengthy spell out with a serious knee problem seven years ago, will do that to most professional athletes.

It's a common question that is asked of players upon their return: how do you trust your body again?

Most will tell you that they put it to the back of their minds, but the reality is that it is easier said than done.

For Kearney, however, as he watched Michael Owen open up about his injury nightmare on TV last weekend, he found himself relating to the former England striker's mental anguish.

In a nutshell, Owen admitted that he constantly doubted his body to perform as it once did, and ultimately, it curtailed his career.

Thankfully, Kearney hasn't suffered the same fate and despite an injury-free run that allowed him play a crucial role in both Ireland and Leinster's successes last season, it wasn't always like that.

Insightful

"I don't know if you saw the interview with Michael Owen on BT Sport, it was brilliant and it was unbelievably insightful," Kearney said at the announcement of Leinster's five-year partnership with BearingPoint.

"There was a huge amount that I could relate to. He put it so eloquently. There was such an insight into a player's mind when they're going through those periods that are really difficult, particularly with soft tissue injuries.

Rob Kearney has had his fair share of injuries throughout his career. Photo: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
Rob Kearney has had his fair share of injuries throughout his career. Photo: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

"It's a collision game, you are going to be missing guys throughout a season. A striker is probably a little bit the equivalent of the (rugby) back three.

"There's sometimes you get the ball in space and you have to go full blast for it and, like him, there were times I didn't want the ball or if I got an intercept, instead of running the length you'd be looking for someone else.

"Afraid of just waiting for the pain. Now, thankfully I've come out the other end. Even last year, there were times at the start of last season where you wouldn't be overly comfortable opening up, so it was a big area for me in my pre-season this year.

"You can't come clean because you won't get picked then. If you say, 'I'm not overly confident in my body at the moment,' you're out the door.

"It happened to me a couple of times last year. You have to just go and, if you pull up, you pull up.

"It is a difficult place to be in when you're running and the only thing you are thinking is your hamstrings."

While he might not be back in action for a few weeks yet, due to the IRFU's player management programme, Kearney has been flying in pre-season.

"The most pleasing thing for me is that we have data for speed times over the last six years and I think it was two, three weeks ago I hit my best time in six years," he revealed.

"It's very pleasing and encouraging to know that at the young age of 32 you still have that in you.

"I've done a huge amount of speed work and sprinting away from a rugby field, on a track, on an astro, just getting comfortable at opening up at 100 per cent again."

On the back of Sam Warburton and Seán O'Brien recently sharing their concerns about players needing more protection, Kearney's feelings also offer a fascinating insight into the mindset of the modern player.

"I still absolutely love the game - two years ago, not so much, but, now, absolutely," the full-back continued.

"The last six months, I've been as happy as I've ever been in the environment, on the rugby field, really enjoying the last two or three years or my career, whatever it might be.

"I made this decision to get into rugby from the age of 18. You can't come out the other end of it and resent it, if it's always been my decision to put myself in it in the first place.

"I've been very lucky with injuries, in some regards as well. This is my 14th season. Bar 2011, when I was out for nine months, I've never missed a huge chunk of rugby with serious injuries.

"I think I had five hamstring strains in that season three years ago and then the season two years ago, I had maybe three surgeries and some bad joint injuries.

"When the body's not good, the mind's not good. And when the mind's not good, your desire to play and enjoy rugby is massively diminished. Last year was one of, if not the, most enjoyable year that I've had playing rugby.

"It helps when you're winning every week and winning every trophy available to you, but what I had gone through the two seasons beforehand, to come out the other end of it was particularly enjoyable and satisfying."

Joe Schmidt and Leo Cullen stuck with Kearney through thick and thin, and both head coaches were rewarded for their faith in him.

The Louth native has assumed his leadership role within a Leinster squad who have their sights set on somehow building on an historic double.

Kearney has been down this road before and Leinster failed to back up their success, but he believes the younger players are hungry enough to go again.

"I won a Grand Slam in my second Six Nations, it was my third Heineken Cup season when we won that," he added.

"Then I went on a Lions tour. You're 22 years old and thinking, 'Jeez, this stuff is easy. What's everyone going on about?'

"I was on a Lions tour at the end of that year, so you're 22 years of age and you think, 'This is easy, what's everyone going on about?'

"Then I do remember having some chats with some of the older lads; I remember one in particular with Brian (O'Driscoll) and he said, 'Listen, this is not how it flies. These opportunities don't come around too often, you have to work hard for them.

"'You make sure that they fully buy into the fact that we have to be better this year if we are to win again'."

Irish Independent

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