Belfast Telegraph

Vincent Hogan: Rob Kearney not a quiet man any longer

Rob Kearney is an accidental revolutionary. He will be a hundred years dead and, still, people will talk of the December night he cleared his throat in Enfield and a Grand Slam jigsaw miraculously fell into place on the carpet.

It is where the 12-cap rookie delivered his Gettysburg Address. Irish rugby's very own Abraham Lincoln then.

Kearney will forever be the reserved young Leinster man who took a cudgel to Munster self-regard that night. In reality, he paid them a towering compliment.

The 14 months since have catapulted him to stardom and Ireland to virtual rugby dominance of the Northern Hemisphere. Who could have foreseen it?

Perhaps some will argue now that Declan Kidney did. That Enfield simply encapsulated his wizardry with people and his ability to manipulate the mind.

Kidney wanted many things that night but, probably, none of them more than he wanted candour. And, in time, it came in torrents.

The squad had been broken into six and seven-man groups, each given a senior player to act as chairman. Kearney's chairman was Ronan O'Gara.

At some point, the issue of the All Blacks got an airing. Munster's second string had given them a momentous grilling down in Thomond Park. And Ireland? Well Ireland had been anaemic in Croke Park. It was hard to reconcile one performance with the other.

And that's pretty much what Kearney puzzled about. He asked a question. How can Munster routinely generate heat that seems beyond the reach of Ireland?

Thereafter, the question took off on a madcap journey. ROG wrote it down and before Kearney knew it, it was being recycled as a brazen challenge in front of the whole squad. He watched Marcus Horan jump to his feet, proclaiming it a slur on his character.

And it was at that moment Rob Kearney knew he had to speak.

So he got to his feet and explained himself. Said that he sometimes envied the Munster players for the passion they could engender in a Thomond crowd. He talked of being in awe of the intensity that a second-string team in red had managed to summon against the All Blacks. “I just think we need to tap into that spirit more,” he said. And he sat back down.

Kidney asked the players to rate the Autumn series game plan and the average response was two out of 10. He didn't flinch. Thunder, it is said, clears the air. And Enfield became a perfect storm.

Donnacha O'Callaghan has described Kearney as going “through the roof” in his estimation that evening in Co Meath. The meeting certainly represented a watershed in his relationship with Munster players. Suddenly, it was as if they could see something of themselves in the Leinster full-back.

It is easy to imagine that all has been plain sailing since. Grand Slam, Heineken Cup, Lions tour. But Kearney's role in the latter stages of Leinster's European adventure was peripheral. He lost a stone in weight when mumps consigned him to a 10-day stay in the Blackrock Clinic.

Michael Cheika did give him a brief run in the Murrayfield final against Leicester.

With the Lions in South Africa, he made the team for the second Test in Pretoria, his man-of-the-match performance was startling and after another impeccable display in the Johannesburg third Test, Lions coach Ian McGeechan described him as “massively reassuring”.

Home the hero came then, only to be left on the bench for Leinster's Magners League game against Munster and the Heineken Cup pool match against London Irish. Yet, it isn't Kearney's way to be truculent and he responded to the setback as he always responds: unemotionally.

In a sense, it has become the defining characteristic of the former Louth minor gaelic footballer, now widely touted alongside Mils Muliaina as a candidate for the title, ‘Best Full-back In The World'.

That calmness, the unflappable demeanour was, maybe, seen at its most stirring in the Autumn series victory over South Africa at Croke Park.

Yet, there was a hidden drama behind Kearney's exhibition. He had woken that morning with severe neck pain and a dose of anti-inflammatory tablets failed to alleviate the discomfort. After the warm-up, he took two more. The tablets can be hard on a stomach and just before leaving the dressing-room, Kearney threw up.

At half-time, the nausea returned and he was late returning to the action. “I was throwing up again,” he subsequently recalled.

Kearney is nerveless under a dropping ball and there is an almost poetic ease to his movement in possession.

Yet, his burgeoning reputation marks him out for occasional cheap shots too. Just seconds after the kick-off in Rome last February, he was clothes-lined by his opposite number, Andrea Masi. Kearney bounced back to his feet immediately, declaring afterwards: “Adrenaline gets you through those moments.”

Yet, the foul was sufficiently dangerous for the sin-binned Masi to be subsequently hit with a three-game ban.

If anything, Kearney's ambling, undemonstrative way obscures that inner steel. He is not yet 24 and looks certain to be Ireland's full-back into the next World Cup and far beyond.

Enfield offered a glimpse of it. History will apply the tassles.

Belfast Telegraph


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