There is probably no other sport that has a relationship with a certain way of life in quite the same way that Rugby Union and farming do. Rob Kearney is one of a very long line of players to represent their country in the game with distinction to have an agricultural background.
It’s a distinctive aspect of the narrative of golden era amateur rugby, when young lads of farming stock fretted about who would bring in the hay while they took months to travel to the Southern hemisphere on tour with the British Lions. We’ve all heard that the hardship endured by the frontier farmers in South Africa and New Zealand and their hearty outdoor way of life bred rugby players of exceptional strength and endurance. The same could be said of our Irish farming rugby players.
Certainly an active lifestyle contributes to a boy’s physical development, and those wishing to pursue a sporting profession need to start early. However, nutrition plays a key role too and good, healthy eating habits start early. Dairy can play an invaluable part in providing protein to help the body recover from the stresses of exercise and to build muscle. Dairy farmers might have a natural edge over some others, in that they incorporate high-quality, fresh dairy produce into their diet, consistently form the very beginning.
Another Irish rugby legend Gerry Culliton, who represented his country 19 times and had a lifelong passion for GAA, was one of the country’s proudest rugby-playing farmers. Legend has it that he and teammate Ronnie Kavanagh, both non-drinkers, insisted that milk be available in the Wanderers club bar at Lansdowne Road. It is also said that other aspiring young rugby internationals were brought down to the Cuilliton farm for pre-season where they were toughened up by lifting fat pigs onto walkways.
You could say that about many of the game’s great players that it they’d never gone on to play rugby full time they’d be on the farm mucking out with the livestock, certainly Rob Kearney would agree.
“We come from a farming background, fourth generation, so we're proud of our roots," he said, "We understand the hard work and commitments that farmers put in to all their produce and just what a strong culture we have in this country and it's something to be proud of.
"I actually used to do a lot of farming and then I went away to boarding school and had it not been for the rugby it'd probably be back home in Louth on the farm now.”
Rob’s family had farmed the land at Willville, Carlingford on the stunning Cooley peninsula, in the shadow of the Mourne Mountains for four generations. The second youngest of four children, Richard is the oldest followed by Rob, we all know David, and the youngest the only girl, Sarah. Their parents knew each other from childhood, David Snr. grew up on the farm, his wife Siobhan is from Dundalk.
Carlingford is not known as a rugby heartland, indeed the boys grew up with a love of and deep involvement in their local GAA club Naomh Mhuire, and in the Cooley Kickhams underage setup, before graduating to the Cooley senior football team at the relatively young age of 16.
Rob might well be lining out for The Wee County now had he not found rugby at Clongowes Wood Colloge, the Jesuit school that has served the Irish International team so well for so long. It’s almost impossible to send a boy to Clongowes and not have rugby ingrained in him.
Rob played for Leinster at schoolboy and Under-19 level before leaving school and attending UCD to study an Arts degree. He played for Ireland at schoolboy, Under-19 and A level before graduating to the senior team for his debut in the 2008 Six Nations. The rest, as they say is history and Rob Kearney has been one of Ireland’s most consistent high performers in the last 7 years playing on 2 Lions tours and known as one of the best fullbacks in the world.
What was Louth’s farming loss is Irish rugby’s gain with the Kearney brothers lighting up the World Cup in England this month. They’re not alone in their agricultural roots, with team mates Rory Best, Sean O’Brien and Mike Ross among their farming team mates.
The traditional narrative of rugby is that the backs often hail from the more agile stock of the professional classes, with the sons of lawyers and doctors taking a privileged route to the playing fields of private boarding schools, while the rural farming stock supplies the ‘beef’ to the scrum, the advent of professionalism in Rugby Union turned that on its head.
Backs are now built like flankers, scrum halves like No. 8s and even tighthead props have mobility and the soft hands of a winger. The farming community is better stocked than most to provide future generations with the elite professional athletes that will line out for Ireland.
The game is unrecognisable to how it was 15 years ago, and who knows how the game will progress? For sure the hard hits and intense physicality of the game is here to stay, and for that you need strength, power and fitness. So some the children growing up on the farms of today, helping with the day-to day-running of the farm and out kicking ball in the local fields at weekends will grow up to represent their country in a monstrously physical professional game. They’ll need all the help they can get, but a traditional farmer’s diet with plenty of fruit, veg and protein from dairy is the best start they could possibly get.