Mick Kearney admits he is “humbled” at the chance to play in Saturday’s Guinness PRO12 final, but he owes it all to the team he will compete against in Edinburgh.
Kearney is a Dubliner who was spotted by Connacht playing for Clontarf in the Ulster Bank League after appearances for Leinster’s under age teams and the Irish Under 20s failed to win him an academy deal with his native province.
However, the 25-year-old jumped at the chance to join Leinster last summer in order to be closer to his family and after an impressive performance against Ulster in the PRO12 semi-final last week, Kearney looks set to start in the second row against Connacht.
The 6ft 5in lock, who has represented Emerging Ireland, has made eight appearances for Leinster since recovering from a toe injury in February, but he credits the 76 caps he won at Connacht for making him the player he is now.
“It gave me the most valuable thing you can get as a rugby player, which is game time. I went down. Michael Swift picked up an injury which was very fortunate for me. I picked up loads of game time at a really high level,” Kearney said.
“It is irreplaceable. There’s not much point just training. You really do need to be playing rugby week in, week out, whether that’s at AIL or A rugby or provincial.”
Saturday will be Kearney’s first encounter with his former team-mates, but he is not surprised to see the progress made under Connacht coach Pat Lam, who is now in his third season in charge.
“It was all down to execution. Even when I was there we were losing games by a point or two points.
"We were finishing seasons with eight or nine losing bonus points. Obviously Dave Ellis and Andre Bell (assistant coaches) are doing fantastic work during their skills blocks and it is carrying over into their performances,” Kearney said.
Although Kearney was impressed at the impact that Lam was making in Galway, the lure of playing for a team stocked with internationals also encouraged the Dubliner to return home.
One of those Ireland players in the Leinster dressing room is Mike McCarthy, who made an impression on Kearney before he, too, left Connacht for life in the capital.
“When I first arrived in Connacht, Mike would have been there and I would have shaped my game to be very similar to his because he made such a massive impact on the games he played in,” Kearney said.
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