IT’S A FRESH start for Ireland. A clean slate with a new coach.
And yet, somehow, it still seemed a little odd that Rob Kearney’s main subject to discuss with the gathered media yesterday was Joe Schmidt.
It’s been a long 12 months for Ireland: from licking some deep wounds after a bleak tour in New Zealand came the high of fresh hope after putting Argentina to the sword. By the end of the Six Nations, it had all unraveled again.
As he hastily wolfs down a sandwich between photo-shoot and interview on his day off from training, Kearney admits that the transition in this new era of optimism is much smoother for the players who have already thrived under Schmidt.
“One thing we’ve learned from Joe is that he knows exactly what he wants,” says the fullback.
“He’s got a specific way of how he wants you to deliver it and what he expects from you Monday to Friday at training and then again come the weekend.
“That’s one slight advantage the Leinster lads have at the moment, but the rest of the guys will pick up on that pretty quickly.”
Kearney’s name is already etched into Irish rugby folklore as the man who urged a squad to put aside their provincial squabbles on international duty before all the moving parts combined to deliver the Grand Slam in 2009. These days, he’s acutely aware of a perception of Schmidt as ‘Leinster’s coach’, despite his new office:
“The one thing he can’t be seen to do, which he hasn’t, is favour one group of guys over the other. That’s probably his biggest challenge,” Kearney said at the launch of the Guinness Plus app yesterday.
Few will grumble if the new coach can deliver the kind of results that earned him the job in the first place. Four trophies in three years is a good return by anyone’s measure, but excellence takes time and Kearney can remember the difficult growing pains Leinster endured too.
“He’s taking on a new team here. New competition, new opposition. He has a whole new coaching team. I’m sure in his mind he’s trying to stress that it’s not going to happen immediately for him. It is a work in progress, you look back to his first five or six games with Leinster – there were headlines calling for the coach [to go] three years ago.
“There is a learning curve. That’s not to say the country should expect three losses, that’s not what I’m saying, but I do think it will take time before you see the very best of this Irish team. It’s not going to happen immediately.”
Patience is a virtue Kearney has had too much opportunity to work on this year. He spent his Lions tour either nursing a minor hamstring injury or watching Leigh Halfpenny excel to the point of being named man of the series.
“I always knew I’d need Jonny [Sexton] to kick really, really well for me to have some sort of impact on that first 15,” the Louthman says ruefully.
“The start of it was frustrating, because It was such a small injury – it wasn’t even a grade one hamstring tear – and it just took maybe two and a half weeks. I spoke to [Warren] Gatland in Dubai and he hinted a bit, ‘just get yourself right for the last four or five games’, which might have thrown me a little.”
Four years on from the tests that helped him forge his reputation, the Lions’ successful series left him simply looking forward to some time away from the constant cycle of recuperation, selection and punishment.
This season, like Schmidt’s early days, fluidity has been hard to come by for Leinster and fullbacks never prosper off dysfunctional back-lines. Kearney is content that once he is completing the basics, the more eye-catching aspects of his game will soon follow. He’ll leave the giddy excitement and expectation for others.
“I was excited to get back on the field. I wanted to make sure that when I took the field there wasn’t this air of anticipation over me that I had to go out and try to prove myself and show why, in my mind, I should have been out on the field in the summer [for the Lions].
“In my mind, I always say consistency at the back is the most important thing. I just want to make sure that the 14 guys in front of me can feel as if I bring an air of solidity at the back.”
Solidity is exactly what Schmidt has focused on in his short time with the Ireland squad. The early part of this week has concentrated on defensive systems. Whether it’s Schmidt or Les Kiss who has the final say on Ireland’s shape without the ball, Kearney and his Leinster cohorts at Carton House will find it a familiar gameplan.
However, they will also be familiar with the penalties that go with getting their duties wrong too. The cameras may often catch the Kiwi coach with a gleeful smile when he is in the thick of training, but those close to him will also know his wrath.
With a clean slate though, that’s all ahead of this Ireland squad.
“We haven’t played a game yet under him. As time goes on and we start to play a few more games and guys aren’t producing the goods at the weekend I’m sure he’ll be as unforgiving as ever.”