'The show can finish quickly... I just want to enjoy it' - Rob Kearney sits down and talks to his former Ireland team-mate Alan Quinlan
Ahead of today’s eagerly-awaited PRO14 derby with Munster at the Aviva Stadium, Rob Kearney sits down and talks to his former Ireland team-mate Alan Quinlan about life at the top with Leinster and Ireland
Alan Quinlan: Let’s start by going back to the famous chat in Enfield in December, 2008. How did you feel when you challenged us Munster players, saying we were sometimes playing with more passion with Munster than with Ireland? It was a brave, ballsy move, and I admired that about you. I remember thinking, ‘What a cheeky b*****d’, but it took some balls. What drove you and what gave you the confidence to do that?
Rob Kearney: It was a tough one. It was probably taken out of context a small bit. The basis of my point was that when I was looking on watching Munster play in Thomond Park, there was something different there that the national team didn’t have. You were obviously the successful team then, winning European Cups and everything just clicked every time you turned up at Thomond Park. You won, you expected to win, and no other team in the country had that. That was more the point that I was trying to get at, that togetherness that the Munster team had and asking why it didn’t happen for Ireland. I wasn’t specifically having a pop off the Munster lads.
AQ: Yeah, and I think we knew that.
RK: But I knew for the national team to be successful at that moment in time, the national team had to emulate the Munster squad.
AQ: It seems like that is the story that has kind of hung over you. Your motivation to do it was obviously to make Ireland better?
RK: Yeah, but if we had gone out in that 2009 Six Nations and got the wooden spoon, would I have been the villain of Irish rugby for airing the topic?
AQ: Do you think the speech had an effect, do you think it galvanised the group?
RK: It was definitely something at the time that everyone was speaking about, the man and the dog on the street were speaking about it, but for some reason when we moved into camp nobody mentioned it. It was almost as if there was a little elephant in the room but no one wanted to talk about it. Whether it galvanised the group, I don’t know. It’s not for me to say.
AQ: Obviously Ireland went on and won a Grand Slam. You backed up what you said at an early stage in your international career. Where does that confidence come from?
RK: I don’t know that it was a confidence thing, I had eight or nine caps at that time so it wasn’t something that was done in a confrontational way. Therefore, I don’t think that I needed to be really confident to come out and say it. If you were having a pop off someone, you might think, ‘That takes some balls from yer man’, but I wasn’t having a pop. I was starting off in my Irish career and I knew something was missing. I had just broken into the team but I knew that if we were going to be successful, something had to change.
AQ: Was there a bit of envy there around how we played for Munster and you wanted that to be brought to the Irish fold?
RK: I think that was the basis of it. I was envious of what happened in Thomond Park on a Saturday afternoon. At that moment in time it wasn’t happening in Donnybrook, the RDS or even the Aviva. We had to tap in to what Thomond Park had at that time.
AQ: You had eight or nine caps at that stage, you went on to win a Grand Slam, go on a Lions tour, win a European Cup, dare I say. It all went so well for you after that Christmas briefing. It was an incredible run in 2009.
RK: Yeah, it was. And there was a major element of luck in that too, that I was getting picked in the team and the teams that I was playing in were winning. From that perspective too, there was an element of luck that the season sort of fell into place for me.
AQ: You made your debut in 2005 and it’s now 2018, you’ve been a mainstay in the team for so long. In your opinion, for Leinster or for Ireland, what way has the game changed from back then to now?
RK: It’s changed dramatically. It seems to be a sport that evolves quite quickly, and a lot. Players are so much bigger, they’re stronger, they’re more powerful, which is probably a bigger point than the first two.
AQ: But you never shirked away from physicality, it was part and parcel of your game.
RK: Yeah, but I think it’s part and parcel of everybody’s game.
AQ: But some guys are more physical than others. You certainly enjoyed it. I remember you tried to behead me in the RDS, in a Munster-Leinster game, I think it was a Celtic League semi-final in 2010. I knew you were physical in a one-on-one tackle but there was a bit of force in it. I admired it in a sense because I liked to be physical myself, but I remember thinking, ‘Jesus, I got one-on-one with you, 10 yards from the line and I felt the full force’. I’d say that high tackle would probably be a red card nowadays, and it wasn’t even a penalty back then.
RK: It’s funny how you remember it a lot clearer than me!
AQ: Well, any time I got a big hit from a back or got a clean-out in a ruck from them, I’d look at them and think, ‘Jesus, was that you who just did that?’
RK: Maybe it wasn’t me (laughs).
AQ: It was you, I remember it well. I remember thinking, ‘I’m clean through here’ and I put on a bit of a step, and boom. I was cut in two.
RK: I must try and dig that one out of the archives and send it on to you.
AQ: Physically you haven’t changed a whole lot over the years, even though the game has got more powerful, how have you had to adapt over that period?
RK: At the moment I’m playing at my lightest I’ve ever played. The job of the full-back, there is a lot more running now to do in games. Your back-field coverage, you’re just following the ball all day long when you are defending. I suppose the fact that I have got a bit older you need to keep your speed up so maybe shifting a kilo or two is important while making sure that your strength is pretty good. I could have had anywhere from a 5-6kg shift, which is a lot, over the last four or five years. I’m comfortable enough with my weight at the moment but I certainly don’t want to go much lower.
AQ: Criticism, does it affect you? Do you notice it? With all of this online stuff now, it’s probably more noticeable in recent years. Whether it’s you’re getting a bit older, the game has changed, people saying you’re not scoring enough tries…
RK: It’s hard to avoid, isn’t it? It’s a combination of things probably. I’m getting a bit older, I’ve been around a long time. People want to see the new, fresh talents coming in. In the age of social media, everyone has an opinion, be it filtered or unfiltered. There is an easy platform for them to voice that without them being any way accountable for it. I think it’s tough to avoid. Of course, it affects you. You can say, ‘I don’t see any of it, I’m completely oblivious to it all’ but rugby is pretty big in this country. Everyone talks about it.
AQ: Your family hear things, your friends hear things, and even if you’re trying to avoid them, you sense it. We all have a good sense of how we’re going.
RK: Yeah, but one of those things you learn with having that bit more experience is you know how to deal with it.
AQ: I think back to 2016, where there was a little bit of criticism, particularly after the World Cup, there was a bit of pessimism about the way the game was going, and talk about Ireland needing changes in the team, and suddenly Ireland are going to Chicago to play the All Blacks. We’ve never beaten them before. There were questions being asked of you before the game, and I loved the response. I wrote a piece in the Irish Independent after that game and it wasn’t to be patronising because having played the game for so long I love seeing guys who roll up the sleeves, dig in and say, ‘Bring it on’, and that’s the kind of attitude you showed. I know there is obvious motivation to beat the All Blacks but in general, you’ve had a lot of injuries, and suddenly you go out and you’re phenomenal against the All Blacks. Where does that belief come from?
RK: Sometimes that’s just something that’s innate within you. Is it a mental strength thing? Maybe. That game was a little bit different in that the year or 18 months up to that I was copping a bit of stuff in the press and what not. But before the game was the first time that Joe (Schmidt) had pulled me aside and said, ‘Listen, you’re under pressure now’. So I knew I really needed to get my s*** together. Again, there were elements of luck in that too.
AQ: That’s serious pressure to handle though?
RK: Yeah, it is pressure but that’s part of the gig though too, isn’t it? You have to be good at dealing with pressure to be a professional rugby player.
AQ: Were you particularly nervous before that game in Chicago? Knowing that if it didn’t go particularly well you could get the chop?
RK: Yeah, I remember myself and Andrew Trimble were in the changing-room beforehand and I felt a strange kind of pressure and I said to him, ‘If there was an aeroplane outside then I’m on it, I am going home’, but that quickly passed. I remember specifically that moment in the changing-room. But you feel like that a lot of times before games. But that one in particular, Joe had obviously pulled me aside beforehand. It was kind of a little bit of a moment where I was like, ‘Ah, to hell with it. Unleash the shackles and go for it. If this is your last one, this is your last one. If it is, just go down with some sort of a fight’.
AQ: Aside from the obvious joy of winning the match, was there a personal moment where you had a chance to enjoy it?
RK: There was actually a moment in the first half where Johnny (Sexton) gave me a short ball. ‘Zeebs’ (Simon Zebo) ran a line out the back. I made a line-break, stepped Aaron Smith, and just got held up before their line, I was maybe half a metre from a try, Kieran Read got me by the ankles. But it was a line-break with a step, and that’s all it takes sometimes, just to spark. After that then we got the try, I took a restart over Ben Smith and then you’re in the moment. You feel the tide has started to turn a little bit and you’re filled with a little bit more confidence and things start to go. When you’re going through those rough periods sometimes it just takes that one small thing to spark the fire again.
AQ: When you sat in the dressing-room afterwards was it a sense of relief or was it a case of two fingers to the critics?
RK: I probably knew that I was under-performing a little bit. The year before that I was plagued by injury. I was with a coach who was backing me quite a bit over that time, so it certainly wasn’t a ‘showing the fingers’ moment. There was a lot of relief but it was a very happy moment as well, happy that I had repaid a little bit of the faith that had been shown in me.
AQ: That must be massive when you have a coach who believes in you like that?
RK: Yeah, it is. And that’s why the criticism at times really is just a little bit of noise. Once you have the backing of the coach the chances are you also have the backing of the players. Everything outside of that doesn’t matter as much.
AQ: Moving on from that, to now. You’re the most decorated Irish rugby player in history. Have you four Heineken/Champions Cups now or three and three-quarters (having missed a lot of 2009/’10 campaign through injury)?
RK: Three and one-quarter. Four medals, but one of the medals you have it there at home but it doesn’t have the same value. It doesn’t have the same prestige for me.
AQ: It’s a phenomenal amount of success, though. You’ve beaten the All Blacks, you’ve won four Six Nations titles, including two Grand Slams, four Heineken Cups, you’ve won PRO12s, a PRO14, a Test series success in Australia. How do you feel when I say you are the most decorated player in the history of Irish rugby?
RK: I’m a little bit embarrassed by it because, you know, timing is obviously such a massive thing. My first Six Nations was in 2009, as you know buoyed by so many world-class players who led that team on a bit. My timing in 2009 was really good and then in 2018 I was 31 years of age, I’ve got a coach who still backs me and still picks me. There is an element of luck and gratitude in that as well. I’ve picked up a few injuries over the years but none of them have ever really come at critical moments. Of the four championship wins, I’ve played 20 games out of 20. I’ve missed a lot of Six Nations games but thankfully I haven’t missed any of those, so there’s a lucky side to that as well.
AQ: Out of all that success, what have the real highs been for you?
RK: Beating the All Blacks was a real high. The Six Nations last season was a real high given what went on in the years before that and all the question marks over me and my performances. To be able to do something that you felt you still could, to silence the critics or whatever, as they say, probably gave me a lot more personal satisfaction than 2009.
AQ: How do you feel about going into this season with Leinster and Ireland, and with a World Cup looming?
RK: I’m excited. The key for me, now that I’m a bit older, is managing my body and making sure that I’m in a good physical condition. Because when I get that right I start to play more games and the more games you play the better your form is. I’m working pretty hard, away in the gym doing my own stuff, first thing every single morning. So for me that is the key. I’m not looking forward to World Cups, Six Nations, even November internationals. You try and really scale it back and look at the game and week in hand because there is so much competition and if you go through a period of two or three bad weeks, you’ll be out of the team pretty quickly.
AQ: How are you dealing with batting all these young bucks away?
RK: Yeah, I had it last year and the year before when Joey (Carbery) was moved to full-back. There have been loads of people there or thereabouts.
AQ: They’ve been touted to take your position and push Rob Kearney to one side and then the show is over. But the show isn’t over, is it?
RK: We’ll see. The show can finish very quickly. Once you’re in the show you’re just making sure that you can do everything in your power to make sure you’re taking the bow at the end of it.
AQ: So the hunger and motivation is still there as strong as ever?
RK: Yeah, on a Monday morning, first thing, I still get nervous about team selection on the weekend. That’s a really good sign. If I came in on a Monday morning and didn’t really care if I was picked or not at the weekend I think that’s the time you know that your heart isn’t fully in the game.
AQ: Do you enjoy it more now? We often hear from sportspeople that when they are a bit older that they are a bit more present and they can enjoy it a bit more.
RK: Yeah, when you start out you think you have a full lifetime of rugby ahead of you. I’m 14 years in it now, pushing on, coming towards the end of it you want to appreciate the moments more. You understand that you are in unbelievably good times. You speak to a lot of former rugby players and they just tell you to enjoy it all.
AQ: Finally, post-rugby, what’s the plan for Rob Kearney? When is he going to finish and where does he see himself in the future? Would you go into coaching or into business? Is that too far ahead?
RK: It is a little bit far ahead. During my career one of the things I wanted to do was further my education. So I have a degree, I have a Master’s, I’m involved in a few businesses. When I finish up I don’t know what I’m going to do, I don’t know what I want to do, but the reason for doing that stuff during my career was that when the end does come that I’m not freaking out, that I’m not stressing about life afterwards. I can genuinely say that I’m really enjoying my rugby at the moment, I’m enjoying life, I’m not overly concerned about what the future holds and what I might do when the time comes to finish up.
AQ: And excited for the year ahead?
RK: Big time, that’s the key. It’s all about the next week.