Monday 16 July 2018

Kearney: As long as coaches and team-mates appreciate my work I'll be OK

Experienced full-back aware of the critics as he goes into another Six Nations campaign

Rob Kearney is expecting to face an emotionally charged France team on Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile
Rob Kearney is expecting to face an emotionally charged France team on Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Rob Kearney is aware of the collective groan from certain quarters whenever Joe Schmidt reads out his name.

And yet, the coach keeps doing it. Time and time again, the No 15 shirt goes to the Louth man who has earned his coach's trust through years of consistent performances.

Every year or two, a new rival emerges. New and shiny, the contender becomes a cause celebre and the established veteran is expected to step aside and hand over his jersey. Invariably, Kearney retains his vice-like grip.

Keith Earls, Felix Jones, Geordan Murphy, Girvan Dempsey, Luke Fitzgerald, Jared Payne, Andrew Conway, Tiernan O'Halloran, Gavin Duffy and Simon Zebo have all worn the jersey since Kearney made his international debut on the wing against Argentina in June 2007, but 78 caps later he remains the No 1.

In time, he will be knocked off his perch just as he came through the ranks and saw off Dempsey. Perhaps it will be Jordan Larmour, maybe the next exciting talent to come through but for now Schmidt is comfortable with his man.

And as long as the coaches appreciate his work, he'll block out the doubters from outside.

"Yeah, you probably do a little bit," he said when asked if he feels under-appreciated.

Nature

"It's only human nature that we like to be appreciated as people and probably even more so as sportspeople. But it's more important to me that the coach and my team-mates understand what I bring as opposed to maybe some element of the fans.

"So yes to your question but there are probably more important people to me as well."

Kearney was fulsome in his praise of Larmour who started ahead of him for Leinster against Glasgow Warriors three weeks ago and alongside him, on the wing, in Montpellier.

It would be no surprise to see the 20-year-old make his international debut out wide with the experienced voice of Kearney inside him to give positional guidance.

Kearney joked that he sees the youngster as a flat-out winger, but has been seriously impressed with Larmour's emergence on the scene.

"I've been as impressed as anyone else at some of the stuff he's done over the last couple of months and it's a good reward for him to be called into the Six Nations squad," he said.

A year ago, Kearney was sitting in the same spot looking ahead to the opening game against Scotland.

The scenario was similar for Schmidt's side who were being heavily tipped as contenders with all roads leading to a final-day showdown with England.

They face Eddie Jones's men last again this season, but need to ensure that they get there intact after their Championship dreams fell asunder due to a slow start in Edinburgh.

"We trained pretty well coming up to that," Kearney recalled. "We just didn't get out of the blocks at all.

"We let Finn Russell play in a dinner suit. He had all the time in the world to pull the strings. They caused a lot of damage in the first 20-30 minutes. That is the biggest lesson that we learned.

"I suppose mentally our whole focus this week will be about the first 20 minutes. The obvious question is why wasn't that your focus last year?

"Well, sometimes you are trying to concentrate on so many things and you'd think it was a given you would get out of the blocks so quickly and you know you have that one day when you are just off a slight bit and you get punished for it."

Tommy Bowe's announcement that he is to retire at the end of season means that Kearney is one of the few men still standing from Ireland's Grand Slam-winning team of 2009.

Rory Best is the only other survivor in the current squad, with Jamie Heaslip on the long-term injury list and Donncha O'Callaghan also hanging up his boots at the end of the campaign. Peter Stringer is without a club after leaving Worcester and, at 40, his future is uncertain.

With each passing year, the achievement of Declan Kidney and his group of players becomes more impressive.

Aside from winning in Italy, away victories are getting harder to come by and while England did achieve a Slam two seasons ago the perceived wisdom is that they are getting more difficult.

A win in Paris would set Ireland up for success, but the focus is on the performance.

"Certainly, it was my second Six Nations at the time and maybe at the time I didn't appreciate how difficult it was," Kearney said.

"I knew we hadn't done it in 61 years, so I knew there must have been some element that was tough.

"It is difficult to do, 2009 is a really special memory but it's not something that we speak about as a group.

"After the lessons that we learnt last year in that opening round one, there's no chat of Grand Slams - it's just France.

"It has always been quite difficult (to win away) and probably more so in the last few years because teams understand just how important it is to win at home.

"And when you have a group of teams that are very evenly matched, that home advantage can be the small thing that gets them over the line.

"We are prepared for that. It's going to be loud and noisy and they'll have a huge amount of emotional charge in that, that's one of the main reasons why it's so difficult to win away from home."

France are not the force of old, but history tells us that Ireland rarely find Paris a happy hunting ground.

"Facts are facts and it is a tough place to go and win and there is something about the French and the Stade de France, they are a tough team to beat," Kearney said.

"It has happened so few times, we are lucky enough to have a lot of guys within the group who have done it and that does make a difference.

"We would like to think we had a good November which obviously leaves us in a good frame of mind and we would like to take a good step forward and keep building on our performances."

And despite the doubters, he'll be the experienced voice in the back-field back for another tilt at glory.

Irish Independent

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