Friday 23 February 2018

Rise of Ireland's smooth operator

vincent hogan

Rob Kearney is an accidental revolutionary. History will overlook the fact, of course. He will be a hundred years dead and, still, people will talk of the December night he cleared his throat in Enfield and a Grand Slam jigsaw miraculously fell into place on the carpet. That Marriott Hotel meeting room has all but become a mythical kingdom now.

It is where the 12-cap rookie delivered his Gettysburg Address. Irish rugby's very own Abraham Lincoln then.

Except history takes liberties with the truth. It salts the memory with little embellishments. In popular folklore, Kearney will forever be the reserved young Leinster man who took a cudgel to Munster self-regard that night. In reality, he paid them a towering compliment.

The 14 months since have catapulted him to superstardom and Ireland to virtual rugby dominance of the Northern Hemisphere. Who could have foreseen it?

Perhaps some will argue now that Declan Kidney did. That Enfield simply encapsulated his wizardry with people and his ability to manipulate the mind. Kidney wanted many things that night but, probably, none of them more than he wanted candour. And, in time, it came in torrents.

The squad had been broken into six and seven-man groups, each given a senior player to act as chairman. Kearney's chairman was Ronan O'Gara.

At some point, the issue of the All Blacks got an airing. Munster's second string had given them a momentous grilling down in Thomond Park. And Ireland? Well Ireland had been anaemic and borderline deferential in Croke Park. It was hard to reconcile one performance with the other.


And that's pretty much all that Kearney puzzled about. He asked a question. How can Munster routinely generate heat that seems beyond the reach of Ireland?

Thereafter, the question took off on a madcap journey. ROG wrote it down and, before Kearney knew it, it was being recycled as a brazen challenge in front of the whole squad. He watched Marcus Horan jump to his feet, proclaiming it a slur on his character.

He heard indignation roll across the room, then suddenly stall like a black wave, suspended above the breakwater. Then he heard deathly silence.

And it was at that moment Rob Kearney knew he had to speak.

So he got to his feet and explained himself. Said that he sometimes envied the Munster players for the passion they could engender in a Thomond crowd. He talked of being in awe of the intensity that second-string team in red had managed to summon against the All Blacks. "I just think we need to tap into that spirit more," he said. And he sat back down, the eyes of the room now welded to the kid who dared to speak.

Gettysburg it wasn't, then. More Oliver raising his voice for "more".

Bernard Jackman recalls: "The fact that he didn't back down, that he put himself out there, seriously impressed people. I mean he didn't have to stand up. It had kind of been twisted that he was trying to have a dig at the Munster lads, looking to get a rise out of them.

"If he just stayed sitting, it would have blown over in a few minutes. No one would even have known it was him.

"Being honest, Deccie (Kidney) must have loved what followed. Because it had a ripple effect on the meeting. It just took guys outside their comfort zone. We could all sit there and set targets. Every team does that, ticks all the boxes, better hydration, blah, blah, blah. But unless lads buy into it emotionally, you're only camouflaging the flaws.

"All of a sudden, stuff started coming out of the senior players. Even (John) Hayes, who would never say much, talked about how much he wanted to win a Grand Slam before his career ended. And fellahs took their lead from that. Rob's thing just seemed to open up the whole room. There was a sense that anything could be said."

And it was.

Kidney asked the players to rate the Autumn series gameplan and the average response was two out of 10. He didn't flinch. Thunder, it is said, clears the air. And Enfield became a perfect storm.

Donncha O'Callaghan has described Kearney as going "through the roof" in his estimation that evening in Co Meath.

The meeting certainly represented a watershed in his relationship with Munster players. Suddenly, it was as if they could see something of themselves in the Leinster full-back.

It is easy to imagine that all has been plain sailing since. Grand Slam, Heineken Cup, Lions tour. But Kearney's role in the latter stages of Leinster's European adventure was peripheral. He lost a stone in weight when mumps consigned him to a 10-day stay in the Blackrock Clinic around the time that momentous semi-final against Munster had the Irish rugby public so rapt.

Michael Cheika did give him a brief run in the Murrayfield final against Leicester, but Isa Nacewa's form at 15 was a reminder to Kearney that nothing about his future was indemnified.

With the Lions in South Africa, he made the team for the second Test in Pretoria only because of injury to Wales' Lee Byrne. Yet, his man-of-the-match performance was startling and, after another impeccable display in the third Test in Johannesburg, Lions coach Ian McGeechan described him as "massively reassuring".

Home the hero came then, only to be left on the bench for Leinster's Magners League game against Munster and the Heineken Cup pool match against London Irish. For Cheika, there would be no genuflecting at the altar of past deeds. Yet, it isn't Kearney's way to be truculent and he responded to the setback as he always responds: unemotionally.

In a sense, it has become the defining characteristic of the former Louth minor Gaelic footballer, now widely touted alongside Mils Muliaina as a candidate for the title, 'Best Full-back In The World'. Jackman remembers Kearney's competitive Leinster debut. Ospreys away. Three minutes in, he had a clearance blocked down. "An absolutely horrendous start to a fellah's professional career," recalls the hooker.

"But it didn't rattle him. Errors never do. That day, he went on to play well. He just takes the emotion out of it. Out of training, out of matches, out of wins, out of losses. He's very grown-up for his age."

That calmness, the unflappable demeanour was, maybe, seen at its most stirring in the Autumn series victory over South Africa in an eerie pea-souper at Croke Park. Inexplicably, the Springboks seemed to target Ireland's full-back from the air. It was like lobbing mackerel to a seal.

Yet, there was a hidden drama behind Kearney's exhibition. He had woken that morning with severe neck pain and a dose of anti-inflammatory tablets failed to alleviate the discomfort. After the warm-up, he took two more. The tablets can be hard on a stomach and, just before leaving the dressing-room, Kearney threw up in the toilet.

At half-time, the nausea returned and he was late returning to the action. "I was throwing up again," he subsequently recalled. "The other lads were already out on the pitch while I had my head over a sink with Deccie telling me to hurry up and get out there."

His Gaelic background with Cooley Kickhams is thought to have had a formative influence on his style of play as a rugby full-back. Kearney is nerveless under a dropping ball and there is an almost poetic ease to his movement in possession.

His left boot, too, is packed with gunpowder. He is an assiduous student of the game, happy to pore over hours of tapes with the Irish video analyst, Mervyn Murphy.

Yet, his burgeoning reputation marks him out for occasional cheap shots too. Just seconds after the kick-off in Rome last February, he was clothes-lined by his opposite number, Andrea Masi. Kearney bounced back to his feet immediately, declaring afterwards: "The great thing about adrenalin is it sort of gets you through those moments."

Yet, the foul was sufficiently dangerous for the sin-binned Masi to be subsequently hit with a three-game ban.

If anything, Kearney's ambling, undemonstrative way obscures that inner steel. He is not yet 24, but -- barring injury -- looks certain to be Ireland's full-back into the next World Cup and far beyond.

Jackman has seen a few close-ups of the reason. Recently, he sat on the RDS bench for a Magners League game against Scarlets that, bizarrely, exposed Kearney to a calamitous 15 minutes. Three times in a row, he dropped balls from the heavens. It was like St Francis of Assisi turning into a scarecrow.

"You could hear the crowd," recalls Jackman. "It was as if everyone was saying, 'What's going on here?' But that was it. Bang. Fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh; Rob caught them no problem. People were wondering was he going to crack. No chance.

"It's something old-school forwards love in a back. Nothing rattles him. He just deals with things and moves on."

Enfield offered a glimpse of it. History will apply the tassles.

Irish Independent

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