Belfast Telegraph

Experienced Kearney with a point to prove in derby battle

 

David Kelly

By David Kelly

Ulster may be sending five former sons of Leinster south tonight in an attempt to prove something to their old province.

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But it will be a 33-year-old veteran at the other end of the career scale who may be the one seeking to make the biggest noise as Rob Kearney takes to the field for the first time since being sent into temporary exile by his country.

If Kearney could extract any consolation after his peremptory eviction from Andy Farrell's first Irish squad, then it would be that at least he had already rehearsed the lament of the disappointed exile. After all, Leo Cullen at Leinster got there first, demonstrating no such qualms in occasionally choosing Jordan Larmour ahead of the veteran full-back during Leinster's passage to the Champions Cup final last season.

Irish coach Joe Schmidt resisted the clamour to promote the younger man throughout 2019 and Cullen himself restored Kearney for the semi-final and final of the Champions Cup, as well as the successful Pro14 defence.

This season, however, Larmour has featured in three of the first four Champions Cup games, with Kearney only starting one of the quartet, against Lyon in France.

With Mike Haley resurgent after a difficult first season with Munster, Kearney may even slip further back in the reckoning for the number 15 jumper.

Having belatedly signed a short-term deal last season, many may feel 33-year-old Kearney might become one of the unwitting casualties of a disappointing World Cup campaign; but his former captain can simply point to another beacon who refuses to submit to the dying light.

Like a towering lighthouse, Devin Toner has guided his uncertain career from the rocks to the safety of clear water and has negotiated a passage back into the Irish fold as a result.

Cullen insists Kearney can follow the big man's lead; indeed, he told him as much at the start of what must feel like the oddest of weeks for the Louthman, losing an Irish squad berth but regaining his Leinster starting position.

"Rob made his debut in 2007, that's 12 years with Ireland so of course you're surprised," said Cullen, as he unveiled a side brimming with enough experience to easily dispatch a lightweight Ulster selection this evening.

"Devin has been exceptional since the World Cup, gone really well and that is what Rob must focus on now.

"He's disappointed but what can he control? He can't control selection for Ireland.

"But he can control how he plays and he's lucky that he has a chance straight away to go out and showcase what he can do."

Farrell may feel that Kearney's face doesn't fit any more; Cullen strongly demurs. "I don't get a sense of it as a door closing," he said.

Beginning this evening, Kearney will steel his best professional self to sharpen his 2020 vision.

"Last year Rob was fine in terms of how he reacted to Jordan getting in ahead of him and then he got selected in finals. Rob has got his chance and he will hope to take it," he added.

Ulster include ex-Leinster men David and Alan O'Connor, David Shanahan, Nick Timoney and Greg Jones.

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