Sunday 17 December 2017

Rob Kearney: Changing for the better

Injury stalled Rob Kearney’s progress but he believes he’s come back stronger, writes John O’Brien

Rob Kearney
Rob Kearney

HE takes a seat in the lobby of the team hotel and feels the old bones creaking as he settles down. "Ach, pushing on," he smiles. In a month's time he'll celebrate his 26th birthday. Imagine. He thinks back to his first carefree steps as a professional rugby player.

He was 19 then, the future just a great big happy blur in the distance. To think Brian O'Driscoll was the same age then as he is now. “Hmmm, there's a thought,” he thinks.

Truth be told, Rob Kearney doesn't contemplate his current status with furrowed brow, nor feel weighed down by intimations of his own mortality. Just your average mid-career crisis, you understand, nothing more. He sees the corollary of this blessed sporting life now.

Once you escape the protective cocoon of youth, you are soon disabused of any notions that the big wheel spins forever. Each birthday brings a gentle reminder of just how finite your resources are. He supposes that such idle thoughts are an inevitable consequence of the year he lost to the sport after damaging his knee playing against New Zealand in November 2010, and the rigorous selfexamination that followed. Once the initial pain had subsided and he sensed there was nothing to be gained from the frustration gnawing away at him, he set his mind to thinking how best he could use his time off and that realisation served him well.

He figures too that the fresh perspective it offered him informed his feelings when the plane carrying the Irish squad landed in Dublin last October and, strangely, he found a nation still giddy at the heights they'd scaled in New Zealand, welcoming them home as if they'd lifted the Webb Ellis trophy itself. As much as he appreciated the sentiment, a part of him didn't feel worthy.

They'd travelled to the World Cup with big notions and come up short. That was the bottom line. “It felt a bit weird,” he says. “I could sense the country got a great lift from the whole thing and that's fantastic. But at the same time we want to be the best. Unless you win, whether you like it or not, you've failed. That's not trying to put a drastic approach on it. We went to the World Cup to win it. We didn't win it. If you have a plan and you don't reach it, you fail. It's a harsh word and some people don't like it because it can point out some harsh realities but, you know, that's the truth of the situation.”

For Kearney, there were positives to be snatched. As his damaged knee slowly recovered, he'd torment himself during weaker moments by idly wondering why the World Cup wasn't coming three months later. But once he'd made it and played his way back to fitness, he realised how lucky he'd been that it hadn't come three months sooner. How crushed he would have been to miss out he can only guess.

So it goes: the pull and push of a sporting career. The years bring hard knocks but confer, too, the wisdom to cope. He remembers how low he'd felt when he missed the cut for the 2007 World Cup in France but also how he retreated to Leinster, played a string of games and within two years had established himself as Ireland's firstchoice full-back and cut a dash on tour with the Lions in South Africa.

‘When we won the Grand Slam, the game was all about catching and kicking’

Strange to think back now. Not even three years have passed since that momentous spring and summer and, yet, there are those who have taken to wondering where the old Rob Kearney has got to, whether time hasn't diluted the fearlessness and sense of enterprise that marked him out back then. He's been fielding these questions for some time now and, still, they bemuse him.

“You know I would genuinely put my hand on my heart and say I've played better games since then. People can disagree with that, of course. You're always going to have your doubters. But I really believe that. I feel I've improved and become a better all-round player than I was back then. At the end of the day, without sounding in any way bitter or self-absorbed, I'm the only person that matters when it comes to those sort of thoughts.”

In his head he tots up the figures. “It's two and a half years since the Lions. That's 18 months of actual rugby and I was injured for seven of those. So you're talking about 12 months and, okay, there's a threemonth period there where I was playing poor rugby — not poor rugby, I just wasn't where I wanted to be by my standards — and the game was changing a bit at the time too.”

Yet by those standards he knows he will be forever judged. And no allowance made for enforced absence, it would seem. He thinks of the guy he met a while back who dared to suggest that, all told perhaps, it had been a tough year for the full-back in terms of performance.

Kearney eyeballed his inquisitor suspiciously and waited for a punchline that never arrived. And maybe, he wondered, that merely crystallised a tough reality. Sitting still was effectively going backwards. Yet, as soon as the initial pain subsided, he can't remember a point during his convalescence when it felt like that. He kept in constant touch with his coach at Leinster, Joe Schmidt, watched as many games as he could and, from the other side of the line, he could see clearly how the game was evolving and what he would need to do to keep pace.

“When we won the Grand Slam, the game was all about kicking and catching, playing the game in the opponents’ field. I think it's gone back now to favour the attackers a bit more. I think the way it's changing now is directly related to the fullback.

So I had to go away and change my game, study it a bit more. I had to try and improve aspects of my game, because they wouldn't have been good enough for the style of rugby that's played at the moment.”

In a way it's hardly surprising that the player who famously asked the most awkward questions at the seminal gathering in Enfield in 2008 should, on occasion, turn his focus inwards.

“Well, I was in a position where I was going to be out for nine months,” he says. “So I made a real point of trying to take as many positives as I could from it and instill some desire and hunger back into my game.

“Because you do lose it over time. It's only natural you begin to take things for granted a little bit. It's not a thing anyone wants to happen to them, but I definitely feel I benefited from it.”

Not sitting still became his mantra. He began studying for a master’s degree that remains a work in progress. He spent a week with Concern in Ethiopia and any remaining traces of self-pity were brutally shredded. The notion of going to Africa had appealed to him for some time but the demands of his career hadn't allowed it. And as much as he wanted to make a valuable contribution, he's not ashamed to admit he went partly out of self-interest.

“I didn't go over to be a complete martyr. I wanted something out of it too. I wasn't doing it all to say ‘look at me, I'm doing all this charity work'. I was being selfish too in a way and I think it's important to be honest about it. If it meant putting a bit of perspective back into my own life, then I achieved that and everybody wins.”

So you find him in a good place right now: not old exactly, but aware of the fickle nature of what he does and how quickly the wheel turns. “I've been on the pitch during games when it hits you suddenly,” he says. “You won't be here forever, so why not try something.

Maybe go look for a bit more ball, do something you might not normally do.” He feels like any top athlete approaching peak condition again. A bit giddy, perhaps. Giddy about the Six Nations and what he thinks this team can achieve. Wales and his first Six Nations start in two years. Why wouldn't he feel giddy about that? He hears talk of four-year development plans, the build-up to 2015 and wonders what planet people inhabit sometimes. The World Cup? Give him a break.

“The next World Cup! God knows where any of us will be in 2015. The next World Cup is rubbish. We'll worry about the World Cup when we're a year out from it. At this moment I only care about winning the Six Nations and that's what every player in this squad cares about. Nobody cares about the next World Cup.”

You can't mind what people say. They say he's a conservative fullback in a conservative Ireland setup and yet, when he arrives at the breakfast table each morning, his own brother Dave is just one of the fresh faces staring up at him. All week he'd been thinking how sweet it was to have his kid brother around and then they arrange a practice game on Tuesday and there they are, both brothers at 15, on opposite sides of the pitch.

The old man shifts uncomfortably in his seat now.

“I'm a competitive guy too,” he says sternly. “For all the good things I'd wish for my younger brother, I don't want any of them to come at my expense.” How's that for focus?

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