IT was, by Rob Kearney’s own admission, a strange thing to be sitting in the Shelbourne Hotel last Friday afternoon as his Leinster team-mates prepared for their Magners League semi-final that evening against Ulster.
Had it not been for the serious knee injury he sustained on Ireland duty during the November internationals, the 25-year-old full-back would have been gathering his thoughts and focussing on achieving victory rather than shooting the breeze in a t-shirt and jeans.
So it is difficult to imagine what Kearney will be going through when he takes his place in the stands at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on Saturday evening to watch his friends play Northampton Saints in the Heineken Cup final.
“I’ll be watching in the stands, cheering, crying,” Kearney said during an interview to discuss his visit to Ethiopia as an ambassador for the Concern Worldwide charity.
“There’s huge emotions. “Obviously, I’m 100% behind them and I want them to win, so there’s massive excitement. But it will be a lonely place during the game and probably even worse after the game when we’ve won it. I’m quite confident that we will.”
Kearney is as confident of that victory as he is positive there is much better rugby to come from Joe Schmidt’s team, despite the plaudits earned from the Heineken Cup semi-final victory over Toulouse.
“We’ve been playing quite well this season but I do feel that if we fulfil our potential on the day and look after our discipline, we’ll be right in there. I think we’ve seen glimpses of our potential this season but I certainly wouldn’t single out that semi-final as a great example. I’d probably say it was one of our weaker performances. “Our first-up tackling in that game was really, really poor. We missed 19% of our tackles, which is a stat that we haven’t hit very often this year, and thankfully our scramble on the day was really really good.
“If you give (Northampton’s Ben) Foden, (Chris) Ashton and some of these boys space like that they can do damage.”
As Kearney spoke he was nursing a back spasm he attributed as an unfortunate knock on from a slow return to full fitness following surgery. Yet there have been positives to the long lay-off with the Leinster and Ireland star explaining how the injury prompted a yearning to step outside the “bubble” of life as a professional sportsman and strengthen his already three-year commitment to the Concern cause with a trip to Ethiopia.
“It was only one week out of six months but it was a really good opportunity to do something like that and get away from the whole rugby aspect and just look at how the world works outside the bubble that us rugby players live in.
“Things are very different for us and very often it’s a good thing. We do live easier lives than others but with that comes more responsibility so it was really good to take a big step out of that.
“When you’re out injured and not playing, sometimes it seems like the end of the world, when really it’s actually not.”
That was made abundantly clear to Kearney during his seven-day journey around drought-stricken northern Ethiopia and the East African country’s capital Addis Ababa, visiting a variety of Concern projects including irrigation, livestock and farming programmes, schools and medical centres.
“We visited an HIV and AIDS clinic and they were pretty difficult going, especially when you’re seeing five-year-old girls who have been struck by the disease, it’s heartbreaking.
“There were some orphan schools where you’ve got these wonderful kids with huge ambitions and dreams to be pilots and bus drivers and those aspects were really nice to see, that they have aspirations just like anyone else.
“The irrigation programme, for instance, was massive for one community because before that they had to travel three or four hours a day just to get their drinking water. Now it’s on their doorstep, their drinking water, they can do their cleaning and run gardens off these programmes too – things that we take so hugely for granted but for them completely changes their daily life.”
That said, the problems facing Ethiopia’s 88 million people are ongoing with Kearney highlighting “a huge drought problem ... that looks set to continue... there’s a constant need for help.”
Back home in Dublin, Kearney is reticent to call his experience life-changing but he said: “I have learned to appreciate things much more.
“The people over there were so friendly, they were incredibly happy and really loving life despite having nothing. That was the biggest thing that I took away from my trip there, to try and appreciate life more and not be miserable every day like so many people are.”
* For more information about Concern, which works in 25 of the world’s poorest countries, or to make a donation, visit www.concern.net
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