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Ireland can't afford to take eyes off ball, says Kearney

 

By Jonathan Bradley

After watching his side beat the Springboks by a record winning margin on Saturday evening, Joe Schmidt remarked that it has been years since he enjoyed a big triumph for any longer than 24 hours.

It should have come as no surprise then that attention had already moved onto this weekend's visit from Fiji in Carton House yesterday.

The Irish coach has swiftly signalled for reinforcements with Ulster's Sean Reidy called into camp alongside Leinster's Jordi Murphy.

Reidy, who won his first cap against South Africa in 2016, last played for his province in their win over Southern Kings at the start of this month, being named man of the match out in Port Elizabeth, while Murphy was part of the Barbarians side that beat Tonga at Thomond Park on Friday night.

The back-row duo have come in after Tommy O'Donnell and Dan Leavy were ruled out, with Schmidt expected to make plenty of changes against a side Ireland have never lost to.

In a November series that seems to be lacking a little fizz two years out from a World Cup, the Pacific Islanders at least offer a little variety, coming to Dublin for just the fourth time.

The pair have not met in a full Test since November 2009 when Ireland, with Declan Kidney in charge, were coming off the back of a Six Nations Grand Slam and comprehensively saw off their opponents 41-6 at the RDS.

A try-scorer that day was Rob Kearney who, along with Johnny Sexton and Sean O'Brien, is one of just three men in the squad preparing for this game who played in the win eight years ago.

The full-back, who was playing for just the second time this season against South Africa, believes the side who could feature former Ulster wing Timoci Nagusa will be fired up to halt the momentum they have built up so far.

"Fiji rested a few guys at the weekend, so they're eyeing it up in some shape or form," remarked Kearney of the Fijians' loss to Italy in the San Siro.

"They're definitely a team on the up and improving a huge amount. Individually we know they're very good, but collectively they're improving. They look like much more of a well-coached side. It's definitely going to be a big challenge.

"We know the threats they have and some of their guys are playing as well as they have over the last few years.

"We watched a bit of it (yesterday) morning, they were pretty good. They've got some world-class individuals who we know about through the Top 14 and obviously the Guinness (PRO14) as well.

"They pose a massive threat individually. The key for us is to make sure our systems are in place really well and we don't knock off to give them those individual opportunities.

"It's the same way South Africa have so many talented guys, but if we work together and make sure there's no chinks in our defensive line then it's tough for them to showcase their talents."

Against South Africa, Kearney was the man providing the vast majority of experience in the back-three as he lined up alongside Ulster sensation Jacob Stockdale and Munster's Andrew Conway.

With both wingers, capped for the first time only last summer, getting across the whitewash, the two-time Lion was just as impressed with their contribution as the rest of the Aviva Stadium crowd.

"You could see the excitement in them, they were bubbling with energy," he said.

"Sometimes you might go into games with wingers who you might not have played a huge amount with, you can worry a little bit just how you're going to work in the back field which is an area of huge importance to this team.

"But I thought the two of them did fantastic, and then Sweets (Darren Sweetnam) when he came on was brilliant too."

At the other end of the experience scale, Kearney's preparation for Test rugby will certainly be different than the younger men either side of him, especially given the hamstring troubles that have hit his game time of late.

"I suppose the amount of rehab and prehab I have to do now before pitch sessions is a difference," he added.

"I need to do 45-50 minutes just on my own every single morning before the sessions that I didn't have to do when I was 20-years-old.

"So yeah, things are different, but I've found something now that has been working for me for the last four or five weeks. So fingers crossed long may it continue.

"I've learned a lot over the years, that you can't look too far ahead. You can pick up injuries any time that can dictate your immediate future, but I'm massively hungry to play in this team and my ambitions are firmly on going to the next World Cup."

One of Schmidt's most trusted lieutenants isn't quite ready to relinquish his hold on that 15 jersey just yet.

Belfast Telegraph

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