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Kearney has new focus

It doesn't take the world too long to move on without you.

On the night the Irish Wolfhounds took a deadly bite out of the big, bad English Saxons at Ravenhill last month, two nine-year-old Ulster fans strolled through the stand.

Suddenly, one drove a sharp elbow into the ribs of the other. "Hey, look! It's Rob Kearney!" he said. "Ay, I remember him," came the response.

A serious knee injury has taken the 24-year-old British & Irish Lions full-back Kearney away from the game and out of the limelight. It doesn't take too long to feel forgotten.

"It has given me back great perspective, probably more so of what there is outside of rugby because we are always in this bubble which is the game," he said.

"To be away from it makes you appreciate things a lot more. You get back the excitement and the hunger.

"Sometimes, dare I say it, you can take it all for granted -- playing for Leinster and Ireland."

When do you plan to be back?

"End of April. May. It is looking like that. I don't really like putting a date on it. It is all about preparing for the World Cup," he said.

What about the Heineken Cup with Leinster? What about the prospect of a second final in three years? Straight away, this rules him out of the quarter-final and semi-final, possibly the final.

"If we get there, things could change. But, I need to be back there playing for at least two matches before that. This is by far the most serious injury I have had. I can't lose sight of that," he offered, somewhat resigned to his fate it seemed.



Circus

The business side of the profession can be a drawn-out affair punctuated by offer and counter-offer. Unlike Jonathan Sexton and Jamie Heaslip, he chose to conduct his contract negotiations away from the media circus.

There was a French option. Kearney relayed it to the IRFU. A deal was struck. The new two-year deal was announced last Thursday. Simple. Silent. Effective.

"It was never an option really to go abroad. I had one other place where I would have happily gone to if the negotiations turned ugly here," he admitted.

"It would have given me as close to what I have here. It was never a case of wanting to do that. This is home. It is my province, my club."

At the moment, he is relishing the reign of Joe Schmidt at Leinster. There is a freshness and a degree of democratic respect from the coach that is inspiring.

"It is brilliant. I have so much time and so much respect for him. You want to get on with your coach. At the same time -- any of the lads will tell you -- you don't cross him, you know," Kearney added.

A change of coach from Michael Cheika to Schmidt has brought about a change of attitude from the top of the pyramid right down to the building blocks of the club.

"No one is on a pedestal," he insists. "When I first came into the system, I was 18 or 19, very young, right at the bottom of the food chain. There was a pecking order. I remember thinking, 'this is wrong. This is not good for the team environment'.

"Cheiks treated the older, more experienced senior players a little differently. That is no reflection on the players. They can't help how they are treated by the coach."

Kearney is nothing more than a viewer of the Six Nations now. He is not good at watching when he should be playing.

"It is killing me. I am at a stage now where I just want the Six Nations to be over, just get it finished and move on," he says.

"Watching any game is terrible. What can you do? It is part of sport."

Ireland certainly looks less stable without Kearney's mastery of the airwaves, his booming left boot and all-round experience in the position.

"Discipline is a huge thing for us," he says. "We won a Grand Slam on our defence on the ground. Our breakdown play was unbelievable that year.

"We're still slow to adapt to the new rules," he confirmed.

"It is that whole area of not releasing the tackled player on the ground and being clean at the ruck. We used to be so good there. It got us so many results. We are finding it difficult to leave it behind.

"In saying that, we are so close to letting rip and putting something special together. The great thing about sport is that it just takes one game to turn everything around. It could be the next one."



Stirring

The next day it will be Wales in The Millennium and a set of players portrayed as the evil enemy by their coach, Warren Gatland, last year.

"Ah, that thing! It is just not true. Maybe Warren, coming a little bit from his New Zealand background, just enjoys stirring the pot," laughs Kearney.

"We get on really well with the Welsh lads. I get on especially well with Jamie Roberts. We came through the ranks together. Steve Jones, Mike Phillips are top lads as well.

"Out of the four nations, we are probably the most similar to each other."

After that, Ireland is in line to for crash-tackling the English juggernaut.

"Well, we always manage to get ourselves up for that one, don't we?"

p Rob Kearney appeared in support of a special rugby training clinic for Kellogg's Nutri-Grain last Friday at Old Belvedere Rugby Club