Kearney has final chance

A picture may be worth a thousand words but be careful what it says.

Take the snap of Michael Cheika’s Leinster team celebrating their first Heineken Cup title at Murrayfield three years ago.

There to the right of the frame is a beaming Rob Kearney but his was a smile that masked a conflicting afternoon.

Kearney played just nine minutes that day against Leicester, having contracted mumps before the semi-final against Munster at Croke Park, and, in truth, he may have felt lucky to get his nose in the door at all before the campaign concluded.

Little did he know that his involvement would be even more marginal two seasons later when a long-term knee injury suffered in the November international window restricted him to his civvies for the comeback against Northampton in Cardiff.

That hoary old cliché about these things occurring in threes seemed to be all too apt late last week when he damaged his back in training and, though he was named in Leinster’s XV yesterday, concerns remain as to his current well-being.

Joe Schmidt was never going to do anything other than gloss over such worries at yesterday’s pre-match press conference and, in fairness, Kearney is one of those players who merits a leap of faith if needs be.

Leinster’s strength in depth has been widely heralded but, with Luke Fitzgerald absent, they are depending on Dave Kearney as back three cover. The younger Kearney is promising but highly inexperienced. No two ways about it, Leinster need Rob.

Just ask Shane Lennon to quantify his absence. Nine years ago, the pair were on the Louth minor team that reached the Leinster football semi-final against Dublin, even though Kearney was already on the cusp of a pro rugby career. So central was he to the county’s aspirations that the county board paid for his ticket home from the south of France where he was on holidays.

“The game against Dublin was a draw so he went back over,” says Lennon. “He always kept himself right. His way was ‘whenever you are training, I’ll be training over here’ but he went over on his ankle training on the beach and missed the replay.”

Louth lost by three points.

Lennon remains convinced Kearney would have made up the shortfall and still wonders what the seniors could have achieved in the years since had his old team-mate stuck with the football and partnered their All Star Paddy Keenan in midfield.

Four of that minor team, Lennon included, went on to feature in the 2010 Leinster senior final against Meath when Joe Sheridan’s illegal injury-time goal robbed them of the title and Louth have yet to replicate the form that took them so close.

Kearney’s reaction to adversity has been more impressive.

Bedevilled by injury and loss of form last season, he has been rejuvenated since his return. According to Amlim’s Opta Stats, he is the most dangerous attacking player in Europe having made 740 metres from 91 carries in this Heineken campaign. It is a side of him that had been witnessed all too rarely before his long stint in rehab but such has been his threat this season that Schmidt has admitted formulating attacking moves to accommodate his deep-lying weapon.

“He is a real asset to us,” said Schmidt earlier this week. “He has a good mix with an excellent long kicking game. He has the ability to nail drop goals, as we saw in Bordeaux, and he’s really good in aerial battles and has a fantastic short passing game.”

That threat was highlighted in the 10 minutes after half-time against Clermont Auvergne when he exploded through a gap to set Cian Healy up for the game’s only try and kicked a subsequent drop goal that ultimately kept the French at bay.

It is a skill set that has lit up a Grand Slam-winning afternoon in Cardiff, a World Cup and two Tests with the British and Irish Lions. A starring role in a European final is long overdue.. The hope is that he is fit enough to perform to his best.

Follow Leinster's exertions against Ulster on our live Heineken Cup blog from London at 4pm tomorrow. It will be epic.


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