From cocksure kid to sure-footed veteran, Rob Kearney has travelled far in the game. The Irish full-back sheds light on his career in his recently published autobiography
Rob Kearney, speaking from experience
It’s around this time of year that the rugby judges for the Telegraph Sports Book Awards meet to dissect the various publications from the sport over the preceding calendar year. Rob Kearney’s autobiography, No Hiding, will be part of that discussion.
Kearney will be 35 later this month and he recently became the oldest back to debut in Super Rugby. He’s seeing out his career with Western Force and there’s no doubt how they view him Down Under – his Force profile dubs him “Mr Reliable”.
It’s an apt sobriquet and one in keeping with Kearney’s self-appraisal from his decorated career. He won four Six Nations titles with Ireland, two of them with Grand Slams, and started all 20 matches in those winning campaigns.
With Leinster, he won four European Cups and six Pro14 titles. In 2012, when Kearney believes he arrived as a serious top-level player, he was named European Player of the Year.
You don’t win 98 Test caps, three of them with the Lions, without having something special in your locker. In Kearney’s case, it was his ability to marshal the backfield, to catch anything sent his way, to not give even a crumb of hope to fly-halves probing for weakness.
In the second Test of the 2009 Lions series, Fourie du Preez told his Springbok team-mates to stop kicking the ball to the Lions full-back (Kearney). If that wasn’t the Irishman’s greatest performance, we’d like to know what was. He was young, bold and confident, so much so that he even kicked a spiral bomb, something usually avoided because of the risk of a mishit.
“I was so much at ease with myself as a player back then,” Kearney says. “The older I’ve got, the more my game has become a constant worry about limiting my mistakes. Percentages.”
That is less negative than it sounds because, in Joe Schmidt, Kearney found a coach who valued error-free consistency highly. Kearney couldn’t lacerate a defence like a Jordan Larmour, and he couldn’t adopt a second playmaker role like an Alex Goode, but he was dependable. Someone you could rely on.
Some people criticised him for running the ball straight back at the defensive line. “That was the point. By running straight I’d never get caught in a side-on tackle and get knocked backwards, which would mean your forwards have no access into the ruck.” He was – and still is – the guy who served bread and butter when everybody wanted cake.
Kearney was brought up on a farm in Cooley, County Louth. He admits he was spoilt, allowed to play sport to his heart’s content instead of having to muck in with the chores.
There is an early shock in the book when we learn that his older brother Ross was killed by a truck whilst crossing a road to post a letter. Ross was six at the time and Rob two-and-a-half, so he doesn’t recall the incident. The tragedy left a huge mark on the family, Rob growing up as an “awful attention seeker” between two demanding younger siblings and a terrible grief. On one occasion he cut a telephone cord with scissors to get his mum off the phone.
Bullied at primary school, where he was perceived as ‘privileged’, Kearney began to find his feet at Clongowes Wood College. His sporting prowess made him popular and he played in three Leinster Schools Senior Cup campaigns, reaching the final in the last of those years when they lost to Blackrock College.
He attracted media attention from a young age and it’s clear that Kearney had an arrogance to him that didn’t go down well. Few other Irish youngsters were making any waves and Kearney was put on a fast track to fame and fortune – Eddie O’Sullivan called him into an Ireland squad at just 19.
Kearney says he was naive at this point of his career. He thought Leinster wanted to see a bit of cocksure swagger, someone demanding to play. Only looking back does he see that his public comments were disrespectful to senior players. In particular to Girvan Dempsey, the “ultimate team player” who did so much to help Kearney develop.
At one point Kearney wore a pair of personalised boots, with his name embroidered on. The only other boots like that at Leinster belonged to proven stars Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy, and it caused mutterings in the changing room.
Michael Cheika, his first coach at the province, didn’t like this lad from a ‘posh boarding school’ getting lots of press, and their relationship was fractious from the start. Cheika would slaughter him in reviews, regardless of how well he played.
Despite a general lack of love at Leinster, and O’Sullivan asking him “What’s your name again?” at a training session when he was by then a capped international, Kearney strode onwards and upwards. Initially picked as a wing by Ireland, by 2009 he was part of Declan Kidney’s Grand Slam winners.
He suffered a back spasm on the morning of the deciding match in Cardiff and had to just kick the ball every time he got it because of his loss of flexibility. Fortunately, that was the game plan anyway! Kearney, in fact, played a number of huge matches in a compromised state, among them the 2016 Pro12 final against Connacht and the 2018 win over New Zealand.
In what is a valuable lesson for any young players over-eager to please, Kearney says that 80% of the soft-tissue injuries he incurred over his career stem from a back injury caused by a moment of folly in the gym when he was 19. He was trying to match Dempsey’s 90kg lift and simply wasn’t ready for that challenge in terms of weight or technique.
It took until 2016 before the penny dropped and Kearney realised that years of back injections were just masking other issues. He went to see performance rehabilitation specialist Enda King, who identified a raft of anatomy flaws and inter-linked weaknesses in Kearney’s body. Weeks of hard work – “I almost drowned in my own sweat” – was the catalyst to a late career renaissance still going on to this day.
What else will you learn from Kearney’s book? Plenty. There’s a detailed account of the famous SWOT meeting ahead of the 2009 Six Nations, when Kearney stood up to say he was envious of the Munster passion but never saw that in an Ireland environment.
There’s his bizarre link to American president Joe Biden, his sixth or seven cousin, which led to a visit to the White House and a front-page story in the New York Times.
He compares the two Grand Slam teams, 2009 v 2018, and elaborates on kid brother Dave, himself the holder of 19 Ireland caps. The wing is so unlucky, Rob says, that if it was raining soup he would have a fork in his hand.
And there’s some brilliant analysis of both how to master full-back play and of Schmidt, the man who kept picking Kearney no matter how loud the noise outside the Ireland camp for a more flashy player, such as Simon Zebo.
“We might be running plays in training and after maybe a minute of play Joe would stop everything,” starts Kearney, discussing the merits of Schmidt.
“Hey, we were missing somebody on the far side in the first ruck on the second phase. Joe Bloggs needs to be six inches more this way and on the third phase, Jimmy Bloggs needs to change his angle ten degrees when Paddy Bloggs is coming around the back. Where other people saw chaos, Joe saw everything unfolding in slow motion and with perfect clarity.”
He says reviewing a defeat with Schmidt was like having an operation without anaesthetic.
“We won so many games and trophies on the back of his power plays. I listened to his voice for nine years of my career. I was as afraid of tuning out at the end as I was at the beginning. He’s the greatest coach Irish rugby has seen.”
Rob Kearney: No Hiding has been written in collaboration with David Walsh, chief sports writer of The Sunday Times. This beautiful read is published by Reach Sport, RRP £20.
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