‘In­juries? They test your love of the game’

Le­in­ster full-back be­lieves he still has plenty to of­fer, de­spite set­backs

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY - Gerry Thorn­ley

In­juries are an in­evitable con­se­quence of play­ing pro­fes­sional rugby, and never more so than in the mod­ern era. Yet Rob Kear­ney ap­pears to not only have had his share, but a few oth­ers as well. He’s been through the mill and back again, and just when he thought he was in line for a run of games, he was struck down again.

It has tested his re­solve and, Kear­ney ad­mits, even his love for the game, es­pe­cially in the early stages of each pe­riod of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. But it’s that love of play­ing games at the week­end which sus­tains him, and keeps him mo­ti­vated to work his way back to fit­ness every time.

Last sea­son he suf­fered a bro­ken bone in his an­kle, a knee in­jury and fi­nally a torn bi­cep, which he some­how played with in Ire­land’s games against France and Wales, be­fore un­der­go­ing surgery. That ruled him out of the fi­nale against Eng­land and ended his sea­son pre­ma­turely.

Then, two games into his lat­est come­back against the Cardiff Blues a fort­night ago, he tore his ham­string.

“My leg got stuck in the ground and I got nudged and my whole body buck­led for­ward a lit­tle bit. So there was an in­ci­dent but there’s no smoke with­out fire. I wasn’t feel­ing su­perb dur­ing the week and I was com­plain­ing of a lit­tle bit of ham­string sore­ness so it was prob­a­bly a combo of the two.”

The worst part is the days im­me­di­ately af­ter the in­jury, and fac­ing into an­other pe­riod of re­cov­ery. “You’re just fed up. You go through every­thing that hap­pened the last few years. I was look­ing for­ward to get­ting away to South Africa for a cou­ple of weeks and hav­ing a bit of craic with the lads and get­ting a few more games un­der the belt. Five days later you’re home on your own with three or four other lads re­hab­bing an­other in­jury.”

Spell on the side­lines

He es­ti­mates that his lat­est spell on the side­lines will re­quire an­other four to five weeks, which could, at a push, see him in the frame for ei­ther of Le­in­ster’s Euro­pean Cham­pi­ons Cup games at home to Mont­pel­lier or away to Glas­gow.

Kear­ney had been plagued by in­juries re­lated to a lower back prob­lem, which led to him hav­ing surgery six years ago. “It’s part of the prob­lem, yes. I had back surgery. There is so much go­ing on. The an­noy­ing thing for me is that my ham­strings are pretty strong. I have one of the strong­est sets of ham­strings in the club.”

“Two years ago, I had four in the one sea­son. They weren’t strong enough, so I strength­ened them up. I didn’t have one ham­string in­jury last year, even an in­ci­dent or a tight­en­ing. It was bril­liant. I just picked up three bad enough rugby in­juries. You ac­cept those be­cause it is part of the game.”

“I broke a small bone in my an­kle, I rup­tured by PCL and my knee, both on the left side. Then what hap­pens is your run­ning me­chan­ics start to be al­tered and you don’t move ex­actly like you did be­fore­hand. You cou­ple that with an­other bad knee in­ci­dent, a surgery I had back in 2011 and hip trou­ble and your lower back. It all leads to en­sur­ing I don’t run as good as I used to, I sup­pose. There are so many dif­fer­ent in­tri­cate things I need to stay on top of on a daily ba­sis. If you lose those four for a month or two, you just go back into old habits.”

Were his ca­reer start­ing now, with the ad­vances in mod­ern sports science since he made his Le­in­ster de­but 13 sea­sons ago, he reck­ons he may have avoided some of the in­juries.

“It’s hard to say. I have been un­for­tu­nate over the last few years. Last year my knee landed on an Astro­turf pitch that had a few inches of con­crete un­der­neath. My bi­cep ten­don was just snapped in a tackle. They are things you can’t con­trol.

“I do think that back 13 years ago if I had the same ex­po­sure to strength and con­di­tion­ing and med­i­cal sup­port that we do now that I prob­a­bly would have a lot more games un­der my belt but that’s where we are now.”

“I look at the younger guys com­ing through now and the care that they take of their bod­ies and the prac­tise that is ex­pected of them as op­posed to the Michael Cheika days when you could pull up in your car at Old Belvedere, throw on your gear and off you go. Now we’re in three or four hours be­fore a pitch ses­sion.”

Men­tal tests

Of course, a se­quence of in­juries such as those tests a player men­tally as much as phys­i­cally.

“It is mas­sively a men­tal chal­lenge. The an­kle and the bi­cep and the knee you can take those be­cause they are part and par­cel of rugby. It is col­li­sion stuff. When you are in the gym 6.45 every morn­ing, to stay on top of those things, do­ing 60-90 min­utes be­fore all the other lads come in, and then that hap­pens, it is tough to take.

“It is just not train­ing and not play­ing. We do it for play­ing and the buzz you get from it on a Satur­day af­ter­noon. That is the whole ba­sis of our week from when we get up on a Mon­day morn­ing to the Satur­day. It’s all about play­ing. When you are miss­ing out on that buzz and the adrenalin every sin­gle week, that is the hard­est part.

“It tests your men­tal re­silience for sure. It does test your love of th e game. If you are in re­hab­bing the fol­low­ing day it shows you still want it and get­ting back on a Satur­day af­ter­noon shows you still have a love of do­ing that. It’s prob­a­bly the best test of your love for the game if you can still get back up and go again.”

How­ever low he’s been, though, the in­juries have never made him con­tem­plate pack­ing in the game. “I haven’t been there yet. It is tough. The first week is tor­ture, es­pe­cially this sea­son com­ing back at the start. I felt good and I was ready for this run of games I’ve been seek­ing for a cou­ple of years now. It hasn’t hap­pened yet. It will hap­pen in Oc­to­ber.”

He ac­tu­ally started more games for Ire­land last sea­son than with Le­in­ster, for whom his last start prior to this sea­son was as long ago as De­cem­ber. That said, he played in both games against New Zealand last au­tumn, and all but that fi­nale in the Six Na­tions against Eng­land.

Vin­tage year

Most ob­servers would con­sider the 2008-2009 sea­son as some­thing of a vin­tage year for Kear­ney, not least as that grand-slam-win­ning cam­paign cul­mi­nated in his out­stand­ing per­for­mances with the Lions in South Africa. But the player him­self reck­ons that the 2011-12 sea­son was his health­i­est and most pro­duc­tive, the full-back start­ing all but one of 16 games for Le­in­ster in which they re­tained the Euro­pean Cup, and 14 games for Ire­land.

“The (2009) Lions was good but then af­ter the (Euro­pean) quar­ter-fi­nal I got the mumps and missed the semi-fi­nal and nearly missed out on the tour. There have been a few things here and there but, in say­ing that, I’ve been hugely lucky to play in a huge amount of hugely im­por­tant big games.

“I started all the grand slam games, all the cham­pi­onship games. That All Blacks game was some­thing that I re­ally wanted to do. I’d played them 10 or 11 times and I re­ally wanted to be in that first team that beat them. Then I picked up a PCL in­jury in my knee last Oc­to­ber and that Novem­ber win­dow was get­ting smaller. I have 190-odd Le­in­ster caps and 80 in­ter­na­tional, I haven’t done badly.”

Still only 31, he be­lieves he has plenty to of­fer and achieve yet. “The dif­fi­cult thing for me is that I have a huge amount of faith in my own abil­ity and I would be pretty re­al­is­tic about it too. I know that I still have a huge amount to give.”

It’s all about play­ing. When you are miss­ing out on that buzz and the adrenalin every sin­gle week, that is the hard­est part.


Rob Kear­ney in ac­tion ac­tion the Cardiff Blues at the RDS re­cently, a match in which he tore his ham­string.

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