By any standards, Rob Kearney’s contribution to Ireland’s Six Nations success story has been remarkable.
Along with captain Rory Best, the full-back is one of two survivors of the Grand Slam-winning side of 2009 but Kearney stands apart having started every game of both campaigns and furthermore, all 20 of the Six Nations title runs in ’09, ’14, ’15 and ’18.
He will turn 32 this day next week and despite the critics who often question his selection in Joe Schmidt’s side, preferring more flamboyance in the number 15 jersey, the Ireland head coach believes Kearney, man of the match in the victory over Scotland in round four, still has plenty more to offer the national side.
Asked on Saturday night why Kearney was a player he kept going back to in terms of selection, Schmidt replied: “I don’t go back to Rob Kearney, I go forward to Rob Kearney. Rob Kearney goes forward. I know that is semantics but I think Rob still has a future with us.
“You don’t pick people if you don’t think they have got a future with you. I am not sure what more people want from Rob Kearney, 140 running metres last time in possession last week.
“I suppose some of his defensive work is really good as well so, yeah, look people are always going to have their opinions on selection but we are just going to do as much work as we can to make sure that we try to get the right people and the right combinations.
“You know, sometimes people might say ‘that guy is not good enough’ but that guy is a catalyst for other guys around him. Sometimes I think that is part of it as well you want to get people who are complementary playing alongside each other so that you get that ying and yang.
“You know, I would hate to think if we didn’t have Rob today and we had ended up with Kieran Marmion and young Jacob on the wings, you know it gives you a bit of security at the back there. Rob, as represented by the four Six Nations titles that he has, he must have some idea of what he is doing.”
It is not just coaches who admire a player who has collected more silverware than any other Irishman, both with Leinster and Ireland. His team-mates young and old wax lyrical about Kearney’s levels of commitment, talent, character and longevity.
“I thought he was outstanding today,” Johnny Sexton said of his provincial and national colleague.
“In big games, it is quite reassuring to have him at the back — ball in the air but you saw him going forward today. I don’t think I saw him get tackled by the first man; when fully fit he is one of the best around.
“He’s got his own little piece of history starting in every game in both campaigns. I’ve known him since I was 14, 15 in Leinster squads. I’m delighted for him.”
A member of Leinster and Ireland’s impressive younger generation of stars, centre Garry Ringrose praised the assurance Kearney’s offers to his backline from the backfield.
“Someone like Rob, who talks all through the back, makes sure you stay on top so you don’t really have a choice to tap out and be too tired,” Ringrose said.
“It’s not too difficult when there’s a really good leadership group and certainly for me playing alongside someone like Rob or Keith (Earls), guys who have been there before, they’re experienced with a load of games, just follow their example and work hard and make sure your body is right.
Try not to get too distracted about things further down the line, so it’s not actually too difficult when you’ve got such good leaders like them to follow a good example from.”
Schmidt continues to be impressed by his full-back and no less so at Twickenham on Saturday when Kearney’s aerial prowess under a Sexton bomb put opposite number Anthony Watson under immense pressure, causing the Englishman to spill the ball, which Ringrose pounced upon to score the opening try in the 24-15 win that secured the Grand Slam..
“He missed one high ball but got a couple of really important ones, especially towards the end there, George Ford popped one of over the top and Rob had to make up a lot of ground to get it and was never in doubt of catching it.
“A couple of the tackles he put in were immense and I thought he carried immensely strongly. He broke tackles.”
The statistics will show Kearney beat nine defenders, as a reporter reminded Schmidt on Saturday evening, suggesting the full-back had accounted for half of the tackles Ireland had evaded.
“I think we beat 20 defenders,” Schmidt replied. “I don’t want to exaggerate Rob’s contribution but you can round that up to 10 because I thought his performance was right up there.”
With four Six Nations titles in his locker, Kearney ‘must have some idea of what he is doing’
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