Talk of class act Kearney losing his focus way off mark
WE live in a world where perception is strong and sight is weak. In this era of multi-dimensional and instant assessment spread over a wide variety of forums, sweeping judgements can run wild and unchecked until it becomes impossible to rein them in.
Last weekend, it was publicly posited that, post-Lions tour, Ireland full-back Rob Kearney had been 'turned' by his elevation to the role of high-profile rugby star, endorsement deals and 'celebrity' relationship with a well-known British actress.
Kearney has had a couple of games since the new year when he did not hit the heights he achieved throughout 2009 but to maintain that this was endemic of a serious slide prompted by off-pitch activities was nothing short of preposterous.
However, it is no surprise to see the position being adopted by those outside the tent -- it was ever thus. We like our heroes humble in this country, reluctant champions who adopt a 'just happy to be here' stance in their public utterances.
Since breaking on to the international scene a couple of years ago, and travelling further back to his glittering schools career with Clongowes and early forays as a teenager in the Leinster squad, Kearney has always struck the right balance between assurance and modesty and always in an engaging and cordial manner.
We have been down this road before when Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll's glinting highlights and model girlfriend appeared regularly in the society pages and showbiz websites and were suddenly linked to a perceived dip in form and loss of focus; such views were as ridiculous then as they are now.
It is unrealistic to expect that the private lives of our high-profile sporting stars will not attract attention but what an athlete does in his own time is their own business (as long as it stays within the bounds of legality).
When it comes to keeping players' feet on the ground, there is no one more accomplished than Declan Kidney.
The Ireland coach has long adhered to the creed that if a player is happy off the pitch, he will be a better player when he crosses the whitewash.
During his club coaching days, one of the key players on the team was between jobs for a protracted period of time and Kidney demanded that employment be found for him because "how can he expected to make decisions on Saturday if he is not making them during the week?".
There is no question of Kearney's 'focus' being an issue for the Ireland management or he would not be involved. The reason he is not starting full-back against Scotland tomorrow is simple -- Geordan Murphy has played superbly since he came in for the injured Kearney against England and, on that basis, deserves to hold onto the 15 jersey.
Just as having Ronan O'Gara and Jonathan Sexton scrapping for the No 10 jersey, the situation with full-back is extremely beneficial -- what would the Scots give to have access to players of the calibre of Murphy and Kearney tomorrow?
"I think it's healthy," said Ireland defence coach Les Kiss yesterday.
"It's nice to have those two options back up and running, that's for sure. Geordy (Murphy) has come back sensationally from his injury and that's been a real plus for us, particularly when you lose the likes of Luke Fitzgerald for the long term."
Kearney's performance off the bench against Wales last Saturday was top quality, complete with customary high fielding and superb awareness of space and players around him.
Nay-sayers point to the Keith Earls kick through just before half-time which Kearney was unable to convert into a try but that was one of those split-second, marginal occurrences that take place in high-octane matches and far from the 'butcher' job it was made out to be in some quarters.
After the Six Nations campaign concludes tomorrow -- in all probability with a Triple Crown -- thoughts will turn to the southern hemisphere tour to New Zealand and Australia and the next significant psychological test in this team's progression to the World Cup -- a win in the southern hemisphere.
The same two players will again be fighting it out for the full-back slot and a measure of Kearney's quality is how high his stock is in the southern hemisphere.
There is no confusion between sight and perception among rugby cognoscenti Down Under and they had first-hand evidence of Kearney's quality on the 2008 tour to New Zealand and Australia and last summer's Lions tour to South Africa.
The 23-year-old has amassed 22 caps since making his debut on the 2007 pre-World Cup tour to Argentina and was selected for his seventh international against New Zealand in the summer of 2008 (only his second as full-back) by the interim management team of Michael Bradley and Niall O'Donovan. It is fair to say Kearney took to the pitch in the monsoon-like conditions of the 'Cake Tin' in Wellington as a complete unknown as far as New Zealanders were concerned.
Not afterwards. All Blacks coach Graham Henry referenced Kearney and hard-nosed veterans of the New Zealand rugby media were full of questions about Ireland's young 15, with one claiming that Kearney's display was the best he had seen in Wellington since the great John Gallagher performed there on Buck Shelford's all-conquering All Blacks team of the late 1980s.
He followed it up with another top-drawer display in Melbourne, exciting a similar reaction from the Australian media and management and returned to Ireland, seemingly untouchable as first-choice 15 and as one of the top full-backs on the international scene.
It seemed inexplicable therefore to see him back on the left wing for Leinster when the new season began as the full-back role was shared between Girvan Dempsey and Isa Nacewa. It tied Kidney's hands when the November internationals rolled around and Kearney was wearing 11 when Ireland started Earls at 15 against Canada, Dempsey against New Zealand and Murphy against Argentina.
However, eventually restored to his favoured, and best, position for Leinster's Heineken Cup pool games in January 2009, Kearney was back at full-back when the Six Nations got under way and excelled as Ireland marched to their first Grand Slam in 61 years.
It made his selection for that summer's Lions tour a matter of course and it was in South Africa where Kearney's reputation catapulted into the stratosphere.
Lee Byrne was first-choice for the first Test but the Irishman was stronger in the warm-up games and proved as much when replacing Byrne early on in that encounter. He started the next two Tests and has justifiable claims on the 'player of the tour' award which went instead to Welsh centre Jamie Roberts.
Properly established now, there was no question of who would be Ireland's starting full-back for last November's series, particularly as Murphy was unavailable due to injury, and Kearney had a critical role in Ireland's win over the world champions as South Africa failed to heed the lessons of the summer and persisted in sending kick after kick in the full-back's direction.
Then came the minor post-Christmas wobble, injury against France and Murphy's re-introduction. Next, there is a Heineken Cup run to negotiate and then we are into the summer tour when he will attempt to reclaim the jersey.
In the meantime, Irish rugby followers should give thanks there is such quality to choose from, should ignore the broad brushstrokes of knee-jerk opinion and resist the temptation to take excellence for granted.
This is an instance where perception and sight should be aligned for evidence suggests that the bigger picture will be remembered as an Irish rugby masterpiece.
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