November 20, 2022 | News | No Comments
ROB KEARNEY HAS long been aware of the debate that swirls around him having been Ireland’s first-choice fullback for the last decade.
Jared Payne, Simon Zebo, Jordan Larmour – just a few of the names who have been pushed forwards as alternatives to Kearney in recent years.
Robbie Henshaw was the latest, having been picked ahead of his Leinster team-mate in Ireland’s number 15 shirt for their Six Nations opener against England three weekends ago.
Kearney makes a break against Scotland. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland
Fresh fuel for the debate. But, typically, Kearney responded strongly to the setback, returning to the Ireland team for the round two victory away to Scotland as he delivered a strong reminder of his qualities to Joe Schmidt and everyone else.
“The debate has been going around for a long time and it’s just part of my make-up now in terms of preparing for games,” said Kearney on Friday, after Schmidt’s Ireland had trained against the Ireland U20s.
“I might not agree with it but that’s the way it is and that’s the way it has been. So I just get on with it.”
To be dropped for the England game hurt, making the trip to Murrayfield all the sweeter.
“It was nice to get back in, missing out for the English week was tough,” said Kearney, whose IRFU contract expires after the World Cup.
“To get back in, get 80 minutes under my belt for only the second time this season and get a win away at Murrayfield was very pleasing too. All in all, it was a decent week.”
Having been frustrated by a couple of niggly injuries this season, Kearney was left in Ireland when Schmidt’s squad headed to Portugal for their pre-Six Nations camp.
The idea was for the fullback to get game time in Leinster’s Pro14 clash with Scarlets and Kearney wasn’t quite of the view that missing out on Portugal would deny him the chance of starting against England.
However, he underperformed in Leinster’s win over the Welsh region and the “fallout” was that Schmidt opted to go for Henshaw at 15 for Ireland the following week.
Kearney had a tough outing against Scarlets. Source: Ben Whitley/INPHO
“I think it’s been blown out of proportion more than it was,” said Kearney of his display against Scarlets. “I picked up a knock on the Friday before the game. I wasn’t physically in a great place the day of the Scarlets game.
“But I knew if I didn’t play that week I wouldn’t have been helping myself for the following two weeks, in terms of getting minutes for the Six Nations. Mentally, I could have been in an awful lot better place.
“Then, obviously, those few tackles; the first two one-on-ones in the backfield are difficult tackles to make, the third one I just got gassed on the outside, that was just poor.
“I had a couple of good carries. It was probably just the defensive side of things that let me down.”
Schmidt was up front with Kearney, speaking to him in person the morning he selected his team to face England.
Kearney could understand Schmidt wanting to look at another fullback option, particularly in this World Cup year, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept.
Henshaw is a good friend of Kearney’s and while the more experienced fullback did provide him with guidance in the build-up, sitting down with Henshaw to go through some video work, he admits he “didn’t want him to shoot it out of the park.”
“If we won the game and Robbie is starting, you’re on the back foot then,” said Kearney. “He’s the man in possession of the jersey.
“You do sort of bank on what you’ve done for the team over the last 18 months. You know, November and last year was one of my best years in an Irish jersey for a long time. You do bank on that coming into play a little bit too.
Kearney at Friday’s opening training session in Dublin. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
“But, when you’re on your couch at home watching on TV you’re pretty helpless. For those 80 minutes, you’ve got no control over what happens your future.
“Of course, you want the team to win and you want your mates to go well but you have to be a little bit selfish about it as well in terms of your own future.
“I want to be on the team. If I want to be picked on the team I’ll have to be the best fullback out of everyone else.
“Ultimately, that’s what you’re hoping comes out in the game.”
Having underlined his status as Schmidt’s go-to man at 15 with his display against the Scots – which included several linebreaks – Kearney can look to the future with renewed confidence.
His current contract with the IRFU, a central deal, will expire after the World Cup and he has a big decision ahead.
Kearney confirmed he will definitely finish out next season after the World Cup – whether with Leinster or by following London Irish-bound Sean O’Brien abroad – but he’s not 100% certain on whether that will be his very last campaign as a player.
“I’m trying to get it all done now in the next four to six weeks,” said Kearney of his future. “Obviously, it’s not ideal timing in the middle of the Six Nations but that’s just where we’re at at the moment.
“I’m going to finish out the season, definitely, after the World Cup. So it’s just a matter of trying to get some plans in place in the next four to six weeks or so.
“[A move abroad] would appeal but it’s a big decision too. There would have to be a lot of different variables stack up in your favour and I know it was a difficult decision for Seanie.
“So it’s not one that you make flippantly, there’s a fair bit of thought you need to do.
“When I feel physically good, mentally I’m really good and I enjoy my rugby and everything is going great.
“But I’ve been in patterns over the last few years where physically things can go wrong for you quite quickly and there’s a knock-on factor in that mentally, you just lose a little bit of interest in the whole thing.
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“So once the body stays good and I’m fit and playing games, I’m super happy to keep going and to keep playing.”
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