Rob Kearney: 'You don't know what you've got till it's gone'
Rob Kearney tells Hugh Farrelly how injury has taken him out of the rugby bubble and made him realise how fickle professional sport really is
The Irish have long been known as a nation of begrudgers, but also a people that, as recent history testifies, do not appreciate what they have until it is gone. Sport is particularly vulnerable to both traits.
Former Waterford hurler Paul Flynn, a regular target of terrace abuse in spite of his consistent match-winning displays, is one example.
Rob Kearney, the full-back currently rehabilitating from a knee injury that has ruled him out of action since November, is another.
In the southern hemisphere, Kearney is rated as one of the top full-backs in the world. Back home, he is often painted as the catch-and-kick No 15 who struggles to counter-attack -- and that is when he is not played out of position on the wing.
It is a baffling situation. Having seen Kearney produce one of the great full-back displays in the teeming rain of Wellington back in 2008 (earning rave reviews from New Zealand observers who would normally not deign to notice anyone outside Brian O'Driscoll) the expectation was that Kearney would return to similar recognition.
Instead, he was shunted onto the wing for Leinster and, incredibly, there was a similar occurrence after the Lions tour in 2009, when Kearney was in the mix for player of the series.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney certainly appreciates what Kearney brings to the table. He installed the Louth man as his first-choice full-back for the 2009 Six Nations and Kearney was an ever-present for the Grand Slam and unbeaten run that stretched on until the trip to Paris a year later.
But, heading into this Six Nations, that fact did not stop his injury being seen in some quarters as beneficial to the Irish cause as it would allow Luke Fitzgerald to fully express himself in his No 15 role.
It hasn't quite worked out that way. Fitzgerald is a quality operator, but looks more assured on the left wing, where he excelled for the Lions also. At full-back last Sunday week, France profited from sending their giant centres in pursuit of a succession of high balls aimed at Fitzgerald.
Now, in typical knee-jerk fashion, the absence of Kearney is suddenly being bemoaned as full-back security has become a live issue again.
The issue of appreciation stretches to Kearney's Ireland employers also, as negotiations on a contract renewal have been stretching on since October, although they are coming closer to resolution.
Injury hasn't helped but Kearney is on track for an April return and a key role in the World Cup later this year and, given his importance to the national team, the matter should have been sorted far sooner.
When he sits down for interview, the 24-year-old strikes a positive tone but cannot disguise the frustration he feels at the perception that he is the conservative choice at the back.
"It does my nut in, unbelievably so," says Kearney. "You try not to let it get to you but I can't stand it. I kicked one ball in the Autumn Internationals.
"If I get the ball in the deep and I look up and it's on, I'll go but a huge amount of counter-attacking is having the other 14 players with you. A brilliant counter-attacker might beat one or two but he's not going to beat every opponent.
"There's more scope for it (attack) now and it's a bad time to be injured because that's an aspect to my game I always wanted to work on and help the team involve the full-back in attack a bit more," he adds.
"Hopefully when I get back I will have a few more opportunities to showcase that I'm not as behind in that area of my game as people might expect.
"Full-backs play in a position where it can be made to look easy sometimes if your positioning is good and you're catching high balls, it can look very straightforward. The amount of times you see: 'so and so at full-back had a very solid game'.
"A 'solid' game for a full-back, in my opinion, is a really, really good game because you have got all the key things right and that's what's being asked of you. Deccie (Kidney) always compares full-back to a goalkeeper in soccer, you're the last man and you need to infuse a sense of trust in your team."
Kearney has a deep sense of gratitude and admiration for former Ireland full-back Girvan Dempsey, who showed him the ropes when he was on the way up at Leinster and taught the youngster his knack of being in the right place at the right time.
"I had to work so hard on my game for the first couple of years," he says.
"It's just about reading the (opposition) out-half as best you can. I am always looking at the out-half because they control the game, they control the shape of their team's attack, the patterns, how they use the touchlines, you need to study them as best you can and develop anticipation, work out what they are going to do before they actually do it."
Kearney acknowledges the 2008 tour to New Zealand and Australia as a seminal experience in his career, which made his return all the tougher.
"Those two games were the making of me. That New Zealand game was a really defensive game, in the 'Cake Tin' in the lashing rain. And then the following week we were in perfect conditions in Melbourne -- it was a combination of defence and attack in the space of a week. It made me grow as a player.
"Coming home on a high and being put on the wing for Leinster is up there as one of my most frustrating experiences in rugby. Then the year after, I was lucky enough to go on the Lions tour and perform well and when I came back, I was on the bench for the first Heineken Cup match. They were two hugely frustrating moments, but what do you do? You just have to suck it up and get on with it. It is a sort of powerlessness, I never really got a true answer from (Michael) Cheika."
There is no guarantee it will not happen again, given the presence of Fitzgerald and, particularly, Isa Nacewa but Kearney is enjoying the new regime at Leinster under Joe Schmidt.
"Joe has been brilliant, he's brought a real freshness with him. He's very different personality-wise to Checks, it's a different dynamic coaches take, but still probably ruthless deep down in the sense that when something needs to get done it gets done. That's a characteristic you need in your coach."
Kearney admits to being a "terrible spectator" but has watched Ireland mix the excellent with the excruciating in their first two Six Nations outings and wants to dispel the notion that the team are sticking rigidly to a prescribed game plan of run and be damned.
"You play what's in front of you. In sport you have to be instinctive, you can't go out with a set game plan and Declan doesn't do that," he stresses.
"I think too much can be made of it (game plan) sometimes. It's done on a game-to-game basis and sometimes, if the game is going well and depending on the opposition you're playing, maybe it's okay to run it from that bit deeper.
"It's a game-management thing and that's something the players on the field need to determine for themselves. You win games from playing territory and if you look up and see space, then maybe kicking into it can be the best play to make."
Long-term injury always presents a massive psychological challenge and the last three months have been tough for Kearney. It is hard to locate upsides but one is that, when he returns, it might just be to a wider appreciation of what he offers. That is for others to decide: the player himself believes his time away from the daily routine of rugby has provided its own appreciation.
"Strangely, this injury has been really good to me because it gives you a perspective on life again, about the things that really matter. You just have to stay positive. I was lucky it came over Christmas because I was able to spend time with family and friends.
"It took me outside the bubble I had been living in and makes you realise how fickle sport actually is. Dare I say it, putting on a green or blue jersey can be taken for granted and injury gives you a perspective that makes you truly appreciate those moments so much more."