Tuesday 19 March 2019

'Mentally, I could have been in a lot better place' - Rob Kearney on missing out on selection for England

 

Rob Kearney in training at the Aviva Stadium last Friday. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Rob Kearney in training at the Aviva Stadium last Friday. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

He arrives into the dressing-room still catching his breath after a gruelling training session against an U-20s team who were all around nine when he first donned the Ireland No 15 jersey.

For as long as they can remember, Rob Kearney has been Ireland's full-back.

That was until a fortnight ago, when the stadium above where he is now sitting was packed for the arrival of England and he was sitting barely a kilometre away, watching on TV.

He has missed big Ireland games before, but never when fully fit. Robbie Henshaw started in the No 15 shirt and the reality was that, if the Athlone native went well, he'd keep it.

"If we won the game and Robbie is starting, you're on the back foot then. He's the man in possession," Kearney says.

"You do sort of bank on what you've done for the team over the last 18 months.

"You know, last year was one of my best years in an Irish jersey for a long time. You do bank on that coming into play a little bit too.

"But, when you're on your couch at home watching on TV you're pretty helpless. For those 80 minutes you've got no control over what happens your future."

Fault-lines

As it happened, Henshaw struggled to adapt, with England exposing fault-lines in the normally rock-solid Irish back-field.

Whatever temptation Joe Schmidt had to persevere with Henshaw at full-back, injury intervened, and Kearney was restored for the trip to Murrayfield.

"To get back in, get 80 minutes under my belt for only the second time this season and get a win away at Murrayfield was very pleasing too," says Kearney.

"All in all, it was a decent week. I felt good out there. I probably grew into the game a little more as the second half went on.

"I didn't feel great in that Scarlets game, two weeks prior to that. Obviously, there was a fallout after that. You're always second-guessing yourself a little when that is your last reference point for games.

"To put a decent 80 minutes together was nice. It was nice to get back in - missing out the English week was tough."

After an injury-hit December and January, Kearney was left behind when the Ireland squad went to Portugal for the pre-Six Nations camp, and he knew he was in trouble.

Leinster's game against Scarlets offered him a chance to prove his fitness, but it went badly.

"We had a good chat the morning of the English team selection," Kearney says of Schmidt.

"When you miss out on a big week of preparation like that (in Portugal), I knew I was going to be on the back foot.

"Then, I came in on the Monday of the English week and the lads had prepped that whole week together. I was chasing everything a little bit. By the time Tuesday came around, I had a fair idea."

The Scarlets win was a bad night at the office, one affected by a pre-game injury that disrupted Kearney's preparation.

"Mentally, I could have been in an awful lot better place," he concedes. "Self-doubt is at its highest after a poor performance. That's where your experience comes into play: you've a huge amount of resources in the memory bank that you can get back to those good heights - particularly if your training is good. That's what I always judge things on."

Schmidt's decision to pick Henshaw was about future-proofing the squad. The retirement of Jared Payne and exile of Simon Zebo means that experienced full-backs are thin on the ground. Jordan Larmour has been trialled, but the coach clearly wants an alternative, so Henshaw got the gig.

Kearney may not like it, but he understands.

"I get it, of course," he says. "I might not particularly like it, but that's what has to happen for the betterment of the team and to give us the best chance of winning a World Cup.

"We need to have 30 players who can play so many different positions, and we do have that.

"However they go about their business of choosing teams, you never really have too much of a say. You've just got to go with it."

Watching the team struggle without him brings a crumb of comfort.

"It makes me feel better than if I was watching them and everything went perfectly for them," Kearney concedes.

"Of course you want the team to win and you want your mates to go well but you have to be a little bit selfish about it in terms of your own future.

"I want to be on the team - if I want to be picked on the team I'll have to be the best full-back out of everyone else. Ultimately that's what you're hoping comes out in the game.

"Myself and Robbie would be pretty close. It was a tricky one because I did want him to do well, but not too well.

"At the same time, you feel a little bit of a responsibility to help him out, particularly as he hadn't played there in so long.

Shoot

"I did try to help him out a little bit and we went through some of the video stuff during the week. But, at the same time, when Saturday came around, I didn't want him to shoot it out of the park."

Amidst all this selection talk, Kearney has a future to sort out. His contract runs until the World Cup and he intends on playing on until the end of the 2019/20 season at least.

Seán O'Brien has already announced his intention, and the 32-year-old full-back is also considering whether his future lies at home or abroad.

"I'm trying to get it all done now in the next four to six weeks," he says of his contractual situation.

"It's not ideal timing in the middle of the Six Nations but that's just where we're at. I'm going to finish out the season, definitely, after the World Cup. So it's just a matter of trying to get some plans in place.

"Yeah, it (playing abroad) would appeal but it's a big decision too.

"There would have to be a lot of different variables stack up in your favour and I know it was a difficult decision for Seánie. It's not one that you make flippantly, there's a fair bit of thought you need to do."

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