Tuesday 22 May 2018

Tony Ward - I don't quite get why Rob Kearney takes so much stick, specifically on social media

 

Rob Kearney’s experience and leadership skills were vital to Ireland’s clean sweep of victories in the November International series. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Rob Kearney’s experience and leadership skills were vital to Ireland’s clean sweep of victories in the November International series. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Leaving our most recently-celebrated Lions aside, who were the new generation players to emerge from the Guinness November series with their reputations significantly enhanced? Jacob Stockdale most definitely, Chris Farrell and Andrew Conway certainly, James Ryan, Darren Sweetnam and Joey Carbery most probably, and Andrew Porter and Adam Byrne potentially.

Stockdale stood out alongside Jonathan Sexton and Tadhg Furlong as our players of the month, with Cian Healy not far behind.

All that said, and I love Stockdale's emergence, for me the real plus of the series, and I suspect Joe Schmidt's too, came in the guise of Rob Kearney.

Last Saturday's game against the Pumas was Kearney's 78th cap since winning his first against the same opposition 11 years ago.

For over a decade he has been the lynchpin in the last line of defence for Leinster and Ireland, picking up three European Cup winner's medals as well as three Six Nations Championships - including that never-to-be-forgotten 2009 Grand Slam in Cardiff, only our second ever and first for over six decades.

Brilliant

There have been some brilliant Ireland and Lions full-backs through the years.

Taking 1950 as a starting point it was Bective Rangers' George Norton who blazed the trail. One of our greatest ever followed in Tom Kiernan through the 1960s. Rodney O'Donnell and then Hugo McNeill followed in the '80s.

Geordan Murphy and Kearney (in 2009 & 2013) were the first of the professional crop and while Girvan Dempsey and Conor O'Shea were never rewarded with Lions status the Terenure College-bred full-backs were two of our greatest No 15s.

Tony Ensor and Jim Staples are but two of many others who failed to make the Lions but had fantastic years when wearing green.

Simon Zebo has also made his mark in more recent times whenever Kearney was laid low through injury.

There are so many more I could list from Larry Moloney and Philip Rainey through Philip Danaher to Kenny Murphy, Simon Mason, Kevin Nowlan and on.

To draw the football parallel, TJ Kiernan was our definitive goal-line minder.

As a safe pair of hands in the last line of defence the old Grey Fox was the original of the species.

The advent of Ensor in the early 1970s represented a time of change in the game and specifically the role of the full-back in an attacking context.

O'Donnell, in his limited time at the top, before that career-ending injury against the shadow Springboks in Jo'burg in 1980, was the consummate goalkeeper and courageous to a fault.

McNeill, much like Ensor, applied timing in attack to extremely clever lines of covering in defence.

His interjection for Keith Crossan's try at the Arms Park in the 1985 Triple Crown win was critical and made what remains for me the most complete team try scored by any Irish side given its context, construction and execution.

So many great players have worn the No 15 shirt over the years but pressed to nominate our greatest ever and it is Kearney the elder.

He is nowhere near as effective as he could or should be when coming into the line in attack, while occasionally his covering in defence and last-ditch tackling leaves a bit to be desired.

That said, take the best of Kiernan, O'Donnell, McNeill, Murphy, Dempsey, O'Shea and in Kearney you've got it.

He is a leader on the field, who oozes moral courage. The physical courage, whether chasing or dismantling the high bomb, is obvious, a little less so is the willingness to counter irrespective of where on the field the high kick is taken. That is what I mean by moral courage and the knock-on effect to those in front is instant.

Allied to that is his ability to bring forwards tracking back after an opposition kick on side and into play. In the art of dismantling the rugby bomb and turning it into a counter-attack nobody does it better.

On the evidence of an outstanding November series, specifically against quality opposition in South Africa and Argentina, Kearney is back on top of his considerable game.

Exciting

He is still short on match time and while Jared Payne, the much under-rated Tiernan O'Halloran and Andrew Conway make for exciting and adequate replacements (Conway in particular has been outstanding for province and country), when fit and firing Kearney is still in a league of his own.

I don't quite get why he takes so much stick, specifically on social media.

Back in the late 1990s I thought I had seen the Irish full-back for the next 10 or so years in a young Clongowes lad from Wexford by the name of D'Arcy.

The same Gordon couldn't kick snow off a rope but what a footballer, what a rugby player and without doubt the best schools full-back I have seen.

Kearney was in first year when D'Arcy was in sixth because three years after Des Dillon's all-conquering Clane team had won the Senior Cup another full-back wearing Clongowes white lit up the Donnybrook stage when losing a Junior Cup semi-final to Belvedere.

Rob Kearney was on my radar. Even at that U-15 stage he had an amazing left boot that projected the ball for miles.

Only current Irish kicking coach Richie Murphy possessed that prodigious skill when playing for Pres Bray at a comparable age.

Three years later at Lansdowne Road I watched as Kearney and centre Fergus McFadden were part of a Clongowes team well beaten (24-9) in the Senior Cup final of 2004 by a Blackrock side including Luke Fitzgerald and future Russian international Vasya Artemiev in that Diarmuid Laffan-led outfit.

My match report included "but it was the gifted Clongowes full-back and Louth minor footballer, even in defeat, who lit up this final almost every time he touched the ball. Remember the name Kearney because you are going to hear a lot of it in time to come" (it was to be another 12 months before younger brother David hit my radar when wearing the same shirt).

So for all the positives in the three-from-three November return, and they are considerable, the one that will have Schmidt most at ease over Christmas (if that's not an oxymoron) relates to the welfare of one of his golden oldies.

Thirty-one he is and thirty-three he will be come Japan but for now all that matters is that opening Six Nations trek to Paris when the first name on the team-sheet will look after itself.

And if that fact doesn't represent a successful Guinness series then I don't know what does.

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