Rugby

Former Louth minor championship winner, Dave Kearney talks Leinster, Ireland, Schmidt, success and injury

Rugby

Caoimhín Reilly

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Caoimhín Reilly

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caoimhin.reilly@dundalkdemocrat.ie

Former Louth minor championship winner, Dave Kearney talks Leinster, Ireland, Schmidt, success and injury

Dave Kearney has been Rob’s brother all his life. He will be for the rest of it too.

Dave Kearney has been Rob’s brother all his life. He will be for the rest of it too.

But the link all changed when they went to school at Clongowes. Instead of being a person - and a player - in his own right, he was introduced as “Rob Kearney’s brother”.

“Rob was in fourth year and playing with the Senior Cup team at the time,” Dave tells The Democrat. “I’ve had the label since then and I’m still Rob Kearney’s brother now. But it doesn’t bother me.”

And no matter how often the topic is probed, the reaction is palpably similar. Comparisons or associations are for others to worry about. His sole focus is on performing and getting a career which has been threatened on many occasions back to where he feels it ought to be.

There is possibly even an inner-desire to maximise what’s left of his playing relationship with the 34-year-old full-back, whose contract runs out at the end of the current term.

“We’ve been able to share some of the best moments of our careers, be it Six Nations or European titles, with our family and being able to play with someone in your family, and enjoy those moments together, makes it extra special.

“He’s been great for me in terms of advice and what to expect. I guess I’ve learned a lot from him and lining up for the anthems, in an Ireland jersey, alongside your brother, well, that’s just a very special feeling.

“Although, I’m not sure how great it is for my Mum… she gets very nervous watching games, especially when both of us are playing.”

A small price to pay in the grander scheme of things.

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Perhaps the Carlingford native doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, or the rating his record commands. Nineteen Ireland caps, two Six Nations titles, European Cups and set of leagues doesn’t represent a bad feast of honours for a guy who’s had his career interrupted by injury more than isolatedly.

Throw in the minor championship medals he won with Cooley Kickhams and the size of his trophy haul becomes clearer.

Yet, at just a couple of months off 31, there is a distinct sense of the youngest Kearney failing to achieve what his talent promised. Had he got a clear run in the green jersey, having made his Ireland breakthrough under Joe Schmidt during the infamous 2013 autumn internationals, he would surely have sailed by the half-century appearances mark by now. 

Included in the preliminary panel for last year’s World Cup, he failed to make the cut.

He’ll be 34 by the time Andy Farrell leads a crew of Irish to France in a bid to score a maiden Webb Ellis success. What’s in store for him between now and then is anybody’s guess, but there’s hope that he’ll sample the quadrennial event again.

“Injuries are part of the game, but I think those times that I did miss out, I’d look at it as mileage on the clock that I haven’t used and that I can add on to the latter stages of my career,” Kearney says, honestly.

“I’d never like to stop if my body was feeling good. In three or four years’ time, if I was feeling good, fit, powerful and fast, 100 percent I’d be looking to make it.

“Before Covid-19, I was one of the happiest I’ve been in my career. That’s probably partly due to how the last two years have played out for me. I’ve had a tough time with injury - things weren’t going well - and there was a lot of uncertainty about my future.

“I was becoming fed up with rehabbing every week and didn’t really feel a part of the team. When you’re not playing or training, it’s pretty frustrating and you’ve a lot of low times during that where you find yourself at the bottom of the pile pretty quickly.

“With all the young lads, Leinster definitely isn’t an easy squad to get back into never mind Ireland. But for me to come back this season, injury-free, and have a good run, playing all the big European and League games, the team was going well, I was happy with where I was and enjoying my rugby again.

“If the season goes on and we win another European Championship, it’d mean an awful lot, maybe a lot more.

“I feel I’ve a good few years ahead of me.”

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There was an upside to his omission by Joe Schmidt last autumn. A full campaign with Leinster, working under Stuart Lancaster, gave him the opportunity to stake a claim, the chance to get himself back in the frame for selection.

Mission success, you could say. Twelve tries in as many games, including three in a half-dozen Champions Cup clashes, indicates his rise back up the province’s pecking order and so quarter-final involvement against last season’s continental conquerors, Saracens, was likely before the stoppage.

His form caught Farrell’s eye in that the Englishman named Kearney in Ireland’s Six Nations panel. He failed to add to his caps tally, ultimately, yet the call-up was a sign of progress and another two fingers towards the toe and ankle complaints which kept him out for the best part of two seasons. A way of sweeping over the bittersweet memories of watching Leinster and Ireland triumph from a distance.

“In the early part of my career I didn’t really have many injuries, thankfully. But I did my ACL and in those couple of years where I wasn’t fit, Ireland won the Six Nations and Grand Slam, Leinster won another European title, and for the majority of that I wasn’t really fit. I distinctly remember being there, watching all the games.

“Stuart Lancaster came in at Leinster and didn’t really see much of me. And he probably didn’t rate me that highly because I wasn’t playing and when I was I was getting injured. Then when I was playing I was trying to force it a little and not doing well, which probably added extra stress.

“A goal of mine at the start of the season was to be involved in the games through Europe because if you’re not playing in those games or the interpro games, you’re not putting yourself in the shop window for an Irish call-up.

“To come out of that the other side, and be in a position to play in the big games, it’s been important for me personally.

“Selection for the Six Nations squad was another milestone. Unfortunately, I didn’t feature, but if I keep going with what I’m doing and playing well, those opportunities for further international caps will arise.”

His 10th professional season at Leinster,  Schmidt, a now legendary figure in Irish rugby, gave Kearney his chance when it seemed as though a departure was on the cards.

“First impressions are huge for coaches,” he adds, implying that the New Zealander couldn’t have been overly taken by the “explosive” No11 considering how deprived of opportunities he became.

Yet having earned Schmidt’s trust, the loyalty and faith in which the coach invested in Kearney was huge, which led to his international breakthrough.

“He was very smart tactically and really important for me at that early stage of my career,” says Kearney, one of only three players to take part in every minute of the country’s 2014 Six Nations victory.

“We had a conversation when I was coming to the end of one of my contracts. I hadn’t really played much and he almost said to me that if I was looking to leave the club to get game-time, that I should do that.

“But that was never what I wanted to do - I always had confidence in my ability. I pretty much begged him for a couple of chances and thankfully he gave them to me, and I performed well.”

Schmidt’s appointment to the Ireland hotseat saw the Kearneys included in his first squad, for the November series of 2013. Dave came in on debut against Samoa and scored two tries, but was left out of the matchday 23 for the clash with Australia a week later.

Hence expectation of involvement versus the All Blacks was low, until it was announced that he’d make his first start in the Aviva Stadium affair, which he vividly recalls for its atmosphere and, of course, Ireland’s blistering start.

After Rob ran the length of the field for a breakaway try, making it 19-0, on 18 minutes, the boys in green were heartbreakingly piped at the death; leading 22-17 when Ryan Crotty stole over in the corner, with Aaron Cruden adding the match-winning extras at the second attempt.

“The last minute is the most memorable part,” he quips.

“I remember chasing after Rob. It was some buzz. 19-0 up. I remember seeing him break away and hoping he’d have the gas - special moments, but we were just unbelievably unfortunate not to get the result.”

Still, though, a pair of Six Nations crowns had Ireland entering the 2015 World Cup among the favourites. They breezed through the pool stages, accounting for both France and Italy on memorable Cardiff and Wembley occasions, but a mixture of injury-enforced absenteeism and a tired display saw Argentina dump Ireland out at the quarter-final stage. It was - and remains - devastating.

“That Argentina game is probably a low point in my career. You’re going into the competition to win it, of course. No team I’ve ever been involved in had a goal of reaching a quarter- or semi-final.  So the belief within the squad was there and that didn’t change.

“We’d been playing really well having won the Six Nations and it’s just hard to put your finger on why we didn’t show up on the day. Had we played that game on any other day, we’d have won, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be and it’s one of the darkest days I’ve had.

“The fact that we had so much success previously, the expectation levels were probably higher going in. But, in terms of World Cup to Six Nations games, your mindset is still the same; it’s still a huge game for your country.

“That French game, I’ll never forget the atmosphere at the Millenium Stadium… The Fields of Athenry towards the end was just incredible. It only takes one game at the World Cup to experience it, so it’s not like the quarter-final was a shock.”

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Why has the public’s perception of Schmidt been clouded in a sense? Was it his book or some of the players’ post-World Cup assessments of how seemingly monotonous the routine became? Is it because the team’s two World Cup performances fell so considerably shy of what was anticipated?

“Both teams (Leinster and Ireland) were very successful,” says Kearney, in a manner suggesting fondness for his former supremo. “Joe won three Six Nations with Ireland, achieved our first Test win in South Africa, won in Australia, beat the All Blacks. I think both teams were very successful the way they played.

“The game is always evolving and you could probably say that teams find ways to stop styles of play. I wouldn’t say it was a case of the Ireland team not developing, they obviously did because they were so successful under Joe, like Leinster were.

“Teams can just come up with different ways of defending and suddenly something that might have worked in the past doesn’t work any more.

“If you look at footage from 10 years ago, it’s different; the game now, a lot of it is unstructured, heads up rugby, which is the way we (Leinster) play. It’s about making decisions under pressure, playing what you see and the offload game.

“Whereas previously it would have been a lot more set-play-orientated. It would have been, ‘the first three or four phases, this is what you do’. Every player had a role. There was a lot more kicking and contestables too.

“Though it’s still pretty much all about adapting to how the coaches want to play.”

‘Adaptability’ occurs recurrently across the conversation. It appears to be at the core of Kearney’s philosophy. Understandably so given that his enrolling at Clongowes, a renowned ‘rugby school’, wasn’t purely in a bid to become a professional player in the code. His grandfather, father and brothers went there before him and so it was merely a case of pursuing tradition.

He was a GAA player first and foremost at that stage, but by fourth year, at which point he was on the school’s senior rugby side, the forecast had changed from possibly representing Louth to lining out for Leinster.

“I absolutely loved Gaelic football and won a couple of minor championships with Cooley. Jason Long, Brian Donnelly, Patrick McGrath, a few of those boys... I really miss it actually.

“Who knew what was going to happen? I had trials with Louth when I was 16 or 17, but even just a few years after Rob, who played in a senior championship final (2004), the Leinster set-up had got more professional in terms of academy players.

“When I was 17 or 18, Leinster were starting to play in interpro games and that’s when that took over and I wasn’t really concentrating on Gaelic as much.

“I came back and played minor championship games with Cooley, but once school finished there was no more playing Gaelic because of the academy.”

Cooley’s loss was the country’s gain.

Dave Kearney for France 2023.