These are heady times for Rob Kearney. Saturday brought a second Grand Slam and a fourth Six Nations winners’ medal, Tuesday saw his IRFU contract extension confirmed, and all just a few days before his 32nd birthday. But, as Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt remarked, ‘I don’t go back to Rob Kearney, I go forward to Rob Kearney. Rob Kearney goes forward’.
Already armed with an envious list of accomplishments for both province and country, the Cooley man was back to his brilliant best during the 2018 NatWest 6 Nations, anchoring the back-three alongside Keith Earls and seven-try tyro Jacob Stockdale, picking up the man-of-the-match against Scotland, and leading the attacking stats with nine defenders beaten at Twickenham.
Rob Kearney may be approaching the latter stages of Irish Rugby’s most-decorated individual career, but age is clearly no barrier to winning the ultimate prize in international rugby. You only have to look to current Rugby World Cup holders New Zealand who had a man-of-the-match performance from a 33-year-old Dan Carter in the 2015 final. Conrad Smith (34) and Ma’a Nonu (33) were their starting centres that night against Australia.
Grand Slam glory the second time around has clearly whetted Kearney’s appetite for World Cup success in Japan next year, something which he noted as the main ambition for Joe Schmidt’s men, who have strung together an Irish record of 12 Test wins since last March.
“It’s so special,” said Kearney as he reflected on Ireland’s third Six Nations title in five years. “People worked so hard, we’ve got a fantastic group of players, the coaching staff…we put a massive amount of effort in. We feel justified that we’ve gotten some of the rewards for that. We’ve over the moon.
“(Winning it at Twickenham) shows we’ve come on a huge amount in the last few years. We fear no team in the world, we feel on our day that we can compete with the very best. I think over the last twelve months we’ve proved that, and it’s just a matter of doing that over the next eighteen months because the World Cup is really this team’s goal.”
Casting his mind back to 2009, the former European Player of the Year said that the two Grand Slams ‘are very different’. “The manner in which we’ve gone about this, and the hopes that this team has for now and the future over the next few years, is really exciting,” he added.
Head coach Schmidt’s faith in Kearney as a starter is no surprise given that the ever-durable back continues to deliver in high-pressure moments and see off all-comers for the number 15 jersey. Indeed, last Saturday’s game marked his 83rd cap for his country, putting him one ahead of former Ireland full-back Girvan Dempsey, who is, of course, now Kearney’s backs coach at Leinster.
Speaking in the aftermath of the 24-15 victory over England, Schmidt highlighted what a big influence Kearney had in both defence and attack. “I thought the kick (for Garry Ringrose’s opening try) was a little too far, that fella Kearney is not even going to get into that contest. He gets into that contest where he doesn’t even have a right to be there,” he explained.
“I thought Rob was unbelievably good. He missed one high ball but got a couple of really important ones, especially towards the end there, George Ford popped one of over the top and Rob had to make up a lot of ground to get it and was never in doubt of catching it. A couple of the tackles he put in were immense and I thought he carried immensely strongly. He broke tackles.
“Some of his defensive work was really good. I would hate to think if we didn’t have Rob today and we had ended up with Kieran Marmion and young Jacob on the wings, you know it gives you a bit of security at the back there. Rob, as represented by the four Six Nations titles that he has, he must have some idea of what he is doing!”
Having started this season with a torn hamstring in action with Leinster – on the back of an injury-ravaged 2016/17 campaign which included a broken ankle, a knee injury and a torn bicep – Kearney has shown immense resilience and diligence to get back to his sharpest form following those setbacks.
“The difficult thing for me is that I have a huge amount of faith in my own ability and I would be pretty realistic about it too,” he said back in September. “I know that I still have a huge amount to give and once I believe that then that’s the only spur that I need to keep getting back and going again.”
All those 6.45am starts in the gym has been rewarded with Championship silverware and the possibility of more with Leinster before the year is out. He will also feature prominently in table quizzes around the country as the answers to the following questions: ‘Who is the only Irish player to start both the 2009 and 2018 Grand Slam-clinching games in Cardiff and London?’, and ‘who is the only player who started every match of Ireland’s 2009, 2014, 2015 and 2018 Six Nations title-winning campaigns?’.
ROB KEARNEY – SIX NATIONS TITLE-WINNING SEASONS:
2009: Ever-present at full-back, five starts, one conversion against Italy, and 374 match minutes
2014: Ever-present at full-back, five starts, tries against Scotland and England, and 400 match minutes
2015: Ever-present at full-back, five starts, and 400 match minutes
2018: Ever-present at full-back, five starts, and 395 match minutes
IRELAND’S 2018 GRAND SLAM WINNERS – MOST MATCH MINUTES:
395 – Rob Kearney, Jacob Stockdale
378 – Keith Earls
376 – Bundee Aki
363 – Dan Leavy
362 – Conor Murray
360 – CJ Stander
345 – Peter O’Mahony
341 – Jonathan Sexton
331 – Rory Best
295 – James Ryan
239 – Cian Healy
234 – Devin Toner
225 – Iain Henderson
201 – Tadhg Furlong