ROB KEARNEY HAS the distinct feeling that people are avoiding him.
Teams have grown wise to dangling high balls too close to the Irish fullback and, this season, the spectacular takes are more the exception than the rule.
With Wales’ Leigh Halfpenny building up a Mr T collection of gold, man of the match, medallions and Stuart Hogg running in 70-metre tries, Kearney knows only too well that his place on the Lions tour has become a topic of discussion.
“Of course it crosses your mind that this is the last major stage to impress Lions selectors,” Kearney told TheScore.ie.
“Lions selection will have been going on throughout the last year. Although a huge amount of emphasis has been put on the Six Nations, it’s not the be-all and end-all.
“It’s not the only shop window to stake your claim. It’s important to recognise that when the team does well, individuals do well. Once you start trying to play as individuals, that’s when the team suffers.”
Kearney trains with Eoin O’Malley and Darren Cave today. (©INPHO/Morgan Treacy)
The spectacular, aerial takes that roused Irish supporters at the Aviva and Stade de France last season are not as frequent. Kearney’s reputation as a catalyst for attacks precedes him.
“For me it’s quite frustrating,” he admitted, “because it was always a great way to get into games, get some ball and showcase my strengths. That’s something I’ve definitely struggled with throughout this campaign. It shows a little bit as well in terms of my own touches.
“It’s a case of trying to not get too frustrated by it and trying to find other ways to get into the game, though that hasn’t been helped by the conditions we’ve been playing in.”
An Italian win and a French victory over Scotland could condemn Ireland to last place, something that gives Kearney pause for a long chin scratch before he replies:
We haven’t spoken at all about the wooden spoon. We know we’re there or thereabouts for it.
We just have to be driven performance-wise. The feeling going into the game is that we’re in a better place than we were last week.
“We didn’t get the win, but our performance was upped and we looked like a better side. If we keep going in that direction we’ll be a good place.”
The fullback believes Italy’s win over France, and their close call at Twickenham, dismisses the old preconception that they were walkovers.
From studying their games, the Cooley native has spotted a side that are comfortable going through the phases and not ‘kicking away stupid ball’ or taking snatched drop goals.
“My message to the team would be ‘win’, ” he said. “There’s a big difference between finishing third and finishing sixth. That’s a big jump there.
There are a lot of guys in the team who haven’t really experienced what winning for their country feels like.”
Kearney feels the players should be the ones held accountable for losing to the Scots at Murrayfield. The draw with France, he says, was due to an improved performance but he admits that injuries, and injured players soldiering on in the final minutes, ultimately robbed the team of a morale-boosting win.
He said, “No team plays for 80 minutes, it’s just about trying to minimise it when the opposition get their purple patch.
“Mostly throughout this campaign that’s been in the second 40 minutes. It’s about trying to make sure we get a few points on the board and keep it ticking over ourselves because that will make a big difference for us at the end.”