Tuesday 11 December 2018

Kearney just taking it all in his stride

Rob Kearney in action against Barbarians in May (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
Rob Kearney in action against Barbarians in May (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

THE dust rises as Adrian Sheelan from Cooley Kickhams GAA club pulls up at the gates of Clongowes Wood College to pick up a young Rob Kearney.

Hardly a stronghold of the Association, but as his Gaelic football coach since Under 8s, Sheelan realised Kearney's ability, so the four-hour round trip to the Kildare school from the peninsula of County Louth was well worth it. More often than not, it was the difference between winning and losing.

Small GAA clubs often go to extraordinary lengths to get their best player on the field, but Cooley couldn't be put in that bracket. They are steeped in tradition. Broadcaster Jimmy Magee was born there and county titles make regular appearances across the age groups. They also have helped produce AFL starlet Brian Donnelly, who has signed up with the Adelaide Crows and Irish underage soccer player Conor McCormack, who now plies his trade in Italy.

Sublime

But Kearney wasn't just any player. As a teenager, he lined out in the 2004 Louth senior championship final for Cooley against neighbours and rivals St Pat's. At that stage, the IRFU had already acknowledged his sublime talents and he was on the fast track to the Leinster and Ireland squads.

Cooley's manager for that final was Pete McGrath -- who was also in charge of the GAA's International Rules side at the time -- and he made frantic phone calls to the IRFU to get him released. Negotiations went back and forth and it ended with Kearney delaying signing his professional contract to play in the final. Injury curtailed his influence that day and he was deployed at full-forward instead of his usual midfield berth. Cooley lost by the minimum in Kearney's last game of football.

"He would have played county football for Louth -- there is no doubt about that," said Sheelan. "The county minor team at the time brought Dublin to a replay when he was 17. But he missed the replay after hurting himself when running on a beach. He was very dedicated. I know he wanted to play for Louth in Croke Park, but he didn't get that chance.

"His underage team wouldn't have been great, but I remember him being singled out for some rough treatment because he was such a good player. When the whistle would go he simply put the ball down and jogged on even though he would have had every reason to retaliate."

Last week, Declan Kidney could probably empathise with McGrath. The Ireland coach picked him for his first Six Nations start in his best position of full-back (having made four starts on the wing during last season's Six Nations), but it seemed that injury would rule him out in the middle of last week. He played and, on a day of fine performances, was probably Ireland's best player after Jamie Heaslip.

"Last week was a tough week for me and it was one I had never faced before," Kearney admitted. "On the Wednesday and Thursday I was pretty sure that I wasn't going to be fit and my mind went looking towards the Italian game and you start worrying about your fitness for that."

As with everything else that has been thrown at him, he took playing at such a high level in his stride. And while everyone else waxed lyrical about France's play, Kearney insisted Ireland could and should have done more to close down the space on their strike runners.

"The thing with counter-attacking is that you can make a team look very good if your kick-chase is poor. If you come up with a line that is disjointed and you are giving the likes of (Clement) Poitrenaud and these guys the chance to target forwards, you are going to make them look good. It's all about the kick-chase you put up and that wasn't good enough and that's why they put so many busts on us."

Back in Cooley, Sheelan is still involved in the club and sends the occasional text to congratulate Kearney on whatever the latest milestone might be. Kearney is a director of fellow Cooley clubman Peter Larkin's ambitious Sporttracker company, which produces a series of diaries aimed at promoting higher levels of performance across the codes. Kearney has put his name to a rugby version aimed at schools players, fitting for a such a prodigious talent.

Italy on Sunday is next on the list. Kearney hasn't played there before, but has been told it's a 'nice' stadium for rugby. The Italians like to hit early and often. Like everything else, he will take it in his stride.

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