Rugby

Rob Kearney strengthens claim as county's best-ever sportsman following second Grand Slam success

Inside Track

Joe Carroll

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Joe Carroll

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joebellurgan2014@yahoo.ie

Rob Kearney strengthens claim as county's best-ever sportsman following second Grand Slam success

Rob Kearney.

If Robert Kearney was a strong contender for Louth's greatest-ever sporting hero prior to last Saturday's Six Nations set-to at Twickenham, the accolade must surely be his now. He went into the game with England with one Grand Slam to his credit - now he has two. That puts him on a plane along with just one other Irishman, his current Ireland team captain, Rory Best.

When Kearney collected European rugby's most cherished prize for the first time nine years ago, he had some of this country's icons playing alongside him, the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara, Paul O'Connell, John Hayes and Jamie Heaslip. Rory Best was on the bench for the title-clinching win over Wales at the Millennium Stadium.

With no mention of any of this quartet considering retirement, the widely-held belief was there'd be more of the same to follow. But there wasn't. With a youngster by the name of Johnny Sexton added to the team, Ireland - then in the care of Declan Kidney - took a heavy beating from France in Paris the following year, ending all hopes of a second successive Grand Slam and a third in all.

And even the Triple Crown was handed back. England were accounted for at Twickenham and Wales were left feeling sorry for themselves; but when Ireland really wanted to beat Scotland, hoping to not only win the consolation prize, but end an epoch-making Croke Park sojourn with a win, nothing much went right.

As one season gave way to another after that, O'Driscoll and the rest began to take their leave of international football, most of them quitting the game completely. And as Kidney's successor, Joe Schmidt, began to make an imprint, looking towards the underage set-up, the 2009 team's influence began to wane.

However, despite having injury as a regular companion, causing him to spend long enough on the sideline to leave Schmidt looking for a replacement, Kearney remained a constant. A number of the hopefuls vying for his place lacked nothing in support from some cheerleaders among the pundits, it must be said; but, class will out, they say, and having poked adversity in the eye, Kearney got himself back to full health and was returned to his pivotal role. Schmidt had put his faith in his tried and trusted No. 15, and was repaid in full.

The latest campaign was arguably Kearney's best ever. He was named man-of-the-match against Scotland, and must surely have been in the reckoning again on Saturday, when his aerial prowess, his tackling and his willingness to take a 'tear' at the opposition - as we with a leaning towards the game first embraced by Kearney as a youngster would put it – contributed largely to the home team being left on the back foot throughout.

Other prizes, at international and club levels, have embellished Kearney's career and he's also won worldwide recognition, being a Lions tourist of considerable experience. His latest award brings to three the number of Grand Slams won by Louth-born players. When Ireland won its first title, in 1948, Annagassan-born Colum Callan was in the back row, playing in each of the wins over France, England, Scotland and Wales, the decider going ahead at Ravenhill.

A senior international since winning his first cap in 2007, the Willville Wonder, we'll call him, is 31. Thoughts of retirement are hardly being entertained given the season he's had. And, of course, there's the not unimportant fact that 2019 is a World Cup year.

Ireland's good years in Europe haven't been matched in the biggest competition of all, but with the present management team, arguably the country's strongest ever, still in place, working with a panel drenched in precocity and taking leadership from the dual Grand Slammers, Japan must offer a real hope of at least a first-ever place in the semi-finals.

To finish, a trip back to the opening paragraph. Louth's greatest ever sportsperson?

If there was a poll no doubt the likes of World Cup footballers, Stephen Staunton, Gary Kelly and Ian Harte would have supporters, as would a selection of GAA stars. Peter McArdle would have athletics enthusiasts reaching for their pens, and as the county's only Olympic boxing medalist, Tony 'Socks' Byrne's hat would be in the ring, along with that of the professional heavyweight of well over a century ago, Dundalk Hill Street's Tom Sharkey. No lady achieved as much as British Open Golf champion, Clogherhead's Philomena Garvey.

Contenders, yes. A winner among them? No.