Wednesday 16 October 2019

'Last week was tough watching on' - Rob Kearney spurred on by Jordan Larmour challenge

Fit-again veteran primed for Japan clash after watching his rival shine against Scots

Rob Kearney puts himself through his paces at an Ireland gym session. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Rob Kearney puts himself through his paces at an Ireland gym session. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

RúaidhrÍ O'Connor in Hamamatsu

At least Rob Kearney has had practice at this stage. On Sunday, he took his seat in the International Stadium in Yokohama and watched the latest pretender to his throne step in and step up.

Jordan Larmour barely put a foot wrong, dealing with Scotland's high-ball threat and looking dangerous in possession.

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The 22-year-old has stood in for Kearney at club level many times, but watching him make himself at home in a green jersey at the World Cup was an uncomfortable experience for the senior man.

In February, he spoke of his discomfort watching Robbie Henshaw play against England and admitted his relief when things didn't go well.

Now 33, Kearney has already spoken about his ambition to add the World Cup to his long list of achievements and losing his place is not part of the plan.

Days after arrival in Japan, he felt a twinge in his calf and, while he could have played through it, he knew it wasn't worth pushing. Ireland hope to be here for longer than a couple of games.

So, he ceded the jersey to Larmour hoping that the team would do well and he would get back in when fit again.

He's expected to play against Japan this weekend and Joe Schmidt will be hoping Larmour's excellence will provoke a response from the full-back who played so well in the final warm-up game against Wales.

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"I'm great. I'm good, yeah," he says as we circle round to enquire about his health.

"Last week was tough watching on. I was less than five minutes on the (training) field last Sunday week before I picked up a little niggle, and yeah, it's just good to be back running.

"It's always tougher watching on. I've gotten particularly good at it over the last number of years. So, like I said, they all have that game under their belt now, you just want to get out and get going.

"We had a good pre-season. We trained really hard and I suppose the one thing about those warm-up games (is that) you want to showcase, a little bit, all the work that you've put in over the last couple of months.

"Sometimes it doesn't go like that but there were a few opportunities for me in the Wales game to do a little bit of that.

"It will be a different challenge now this week given the opposition and the stakes are a bit higher, the heat and humidity and all those things.

"When the boys came off the field at the weekend I was just so jealous of them that they've got that first one under the belt, so that's going to be a challenge."

There was never a moment when he felt his World Cup was in jeopardy, but Kearney knows his body well enough not to push things.

"It was more so a management one. Had it been another point in the competition or further down the line maybe you would have rushed it a bit more, but the consensus was to just try and manage it as best we could."

Although he's as much a team man as anyone, Kearney is honest enough to admit the discomfort when watching Larmour play so well.

"It's not nice," he said. "Given we're provincial team-mates, I've had to endure that a lot over the last few years. So, yeah, it is tough but at the same time you have to be happy for them as well. It was a big game for him. It was a big opportunity but it was a big challenge for him as well, and I think he passed it with flying colours.

"He's such a good young lad and you can't help but be very pleased for him.

"You want Ireland to win and, because we do actually get on very well, I want him to go well.

"I don't want him to go really well! But I want him to go well."

This week, Ireland have reverted to a traditional Japanese hotel, adjacent to the country's finest golf course to get away from the crowds and prepare to face the host nation.

They have the place to themselves and, while there's no time for golf, Kearney spent some time in the 'Onsen' (hot spring) to help relax ahead of the game.

The Brave Blossoms play it fast and loose and the full-back is expecting a very different challenge to the one they faced against Scotland.

"Certainly that wasn't as good as Scotland can play, they'll probably be very disappointed with their performance," Kearney said.

"If you had to be honest about it, will Japan pose a better threat than Scotland? You'd have to say yes based on what they produced at the weekend.

"It's very important that we understand that as a team. For me, it's more the fact that it will be the first game back. In terms of the two teams, they will keep the ball in play a lot more.

"They won't kick it out. They will try to kick it down the middle more and rush on. They will back their fitness a lot. They will offload a lot more than Scotland will.

"I'd expect ball-in-play time to be higher. And the tempo of the game to be a little higher too. We said today, in our own team meeting, that this is their cup final.

"They'll have huge support and it will be guns blazing. It should be a fantastic occasion.

"When the fixtures came out, this was one that you'd like to be involved in - the host nation, their support will be massive, the Irish will be there, of course in numbers."

Ireland looked back to their 2018 best against the Scots, but Kearney sounded a note of caution about getting too carried away.

"It's important we don't get too far ahead of ourselves," he said. "Twickenham was only three or four weeks ago and we got a serious hiding that day.

"We're certainly in a much better place, but there's still more in us and we can still keep adding bits and pieces in our game. You have in your plan that every week you're building and getting better.

"The team that wins the World Cup are going to be a team that you'll see an incremental improvement in their performance every week; they'll keep on getting better.

"That's what we need to do, we need to produce what we did against Scotland and then a little bit more."

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