I owe every­thing to Sch­midt, says grate­ful Kear­ney

Full-back chas­ing an­other Euro­pean crown to go with this year’s Six Na­tions ti­tle. Kate Rowan re­ports

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby -

The tale of an Ir­ishAmer­i­can re­turn­ing to the old sod to re­con­nect with dis­tant cousins is hardly re­mark­able, nor is that of a pair of Ir­ish broth­ers taking up their suc­cess­ful rel­a­tive’s in­vi­ta­tion to be wined and dined State­side. If any­thing, th­ese sto­ries are in­grained in the Ir­ish psy­che.

There is a dou­ble twist in this plot, how­ever, as the ‘re­turned Yank’ (as he would be re­ferred to in Ire­land) was for­mer United States vice-pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, and the re­la­tions he dis­cov­ered there hap­pened to be Ir­ish rugby in­ter­na­tional sib­lings Rob and Dave Kear­ney.

The tim­ing of the fam­ily re­union is also per­ti­nent as the Bi­den and Kear­ney fam­i­lies met in the sum­mer of 2016, dur­ing the final chap­ter of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. Rob Kear­ney and cur­rent Ire­land cap­tain Rory Best are the only two sur­vivors of Ire­land’s 2009 Grand Slam vic­tory to make it to the Grand Slam-win­ning class of 2018.

The full-back, who is named in the Le­in­ster side to face Sara­cens in the Cham­pi­ons Cup quar­ter-final to­day, ex­presses al­most as much en­thu­si­asm in speak­ing about Bi­den as he does on his im­pres­sive rugby ca­reer. “It was re­ally cool but quite bizarre,” he ex­claims be­fore re­count­ing how Enda Kenny, then the Ir­ish prime min­is­ter, called him to re­lay that Bi­den had looked into his fam­ily tree, only to dis­cover that the Kear­ney broth­ers were sev­enth cousins. The first leg of the fam­ily re­union took place at Áras an Uachtaráin, of­fi­cial res­i­dence of the Ir­ish pres­i­dent.

It is still with a note of as­ton­ish­ment that the 32-year-old re­counts: “Joe said, ‘Lis­ten, you guys have got to come to Amer­ica and visit us in the White House.’ Nat­u­rally my­self and Dave didn’t need a sec­ond in­vi­ta­tion. A month or two later, we vis­ited the White House, we went into the West Wing, the Oval Office. It was in­cred­i­ble.”

Kear­ney de­scribes Bi­den as “an ab­so­lute gen­tle­man, a re­ally nice guy, some­one who is su­per-knowl­edge­able, kind-hearted and smart”. With ru­mours swirling that Bi­den, 75, could yet mount a bid for the pres­i­dency, Kear­ney adds: “I wouldn’t be overly sur­prised if he had some sort of in­volve­ment in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics over the next few years.”

The con­nec­tion has been main­tained by Bi­den both pri­vately with a phone call and pub­licly with a tweet from the of­fi­cial @VP Twit­ter ac­count con­grat­u­lat­ing Kear­ney when Ire­land beat New Zealand for the first time, in Chicago in Novem­ber 2016, days be­fore the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. The Ir­ish team stayed in a ho­tel owned by Don­ald Trump dur­ing their his­tory-mak­ing so­journ in the Windy City.

Kear­ney em­bod­ies the cur­rent Ir­ish rugby psy­che. There is still the tra­di­tional un­der­dog hunger but with that now comes the mind­set of a ruth­less win­ner. It is an­other Joe, Ire­land head coach Sch­midt, to whom the player cred­its the dura­bil­ity of his Ire­land ca­reer. He also does not dance around the is­sue of how some in Ire­land have ques­tioned his se­lec­tion.

Al­though he does not men­tion by name Simon Zebo, the mav­er­ick who some saw as the nat­u­ral fit to his No15 shirt, Kear­ney speaks with con­fi­dence and de­fi­ance on the sub­ject and hints at the ri­valry.

“A huge amount of why I have got to this point with Ire­land goes to a coach who has picked me over the last few years and seems to have a lot of faith in what I can do for him.

“It means a huge amount. The only opin­ions you re­ally care about are your fel­low players and your coach. Joe is with­out doubt one of the great­est coaches in the world. It is great for me to un­der­stand when he picks me it is for a very good rea­son.

“I know I have the back­ing of one of the best coaches in the world, so that counts for a huge amount. It does a lot for your con­fi­dence. The pub­lic, the peo­ple on the out­side, might raise a lot of ques­tions marks, but the fact you are still get­ting picked is all that mat­ters.

“I would much rather be in that sit­u­a­tion than be­ing a player that is idolised by ev­ery­one in the coun­try, where they think you are the great­est rugby player but the coach doesn’t ac­tu­ally pick you.”

An­other at­tribute Kear­ney has dis­played in his 83-Test ca­reer is re­silience and an abil­ity to bounce back from ad­ver­sity, whether it was re­turn­ing from a hor­rific knee in­jury to be­come the 2012 Euro­pean Player of the Year or af­ter an in­jury-rid­den 2016-17 sea­son to play such a key role in Ire­land’s Grand Slam cam­paign.

“I don’t know if some of it is luck, or if you just have so much con­fi­dence in your own abil­ity that you can feel you can still pro­duce for big games,” he said. “When you have been out and in­jured and watch­ing your team-mates be suc­cess­ful, do your hunger lev­els go mas­sively through the roof when you come back? It is prob­a­bly a com­bi­na­tion of that with luck.”

Be­ing the com­pet­i­tive an­i­mal that he is, Kear­ney is “over­whelmed and daunted” by the thought of re­tire­ment and life post-rugby. He is per­haps bet­ter pre­pared than most as he has a Master’s degree in busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion. He has also in­vested in a di­verse se­lec­tion of busi­nesses in­clud­ing pubs: the Bridge, in the shadow of the Aviva Sta­dium, and the RDS, and Le­mon and Duke in cen­tral Dublin.

Then there is an in­ter­est in a re­cruit­ment com­pany, and per­haps the less ob­vi­ous choice for a rugby player to back: a chain of beauty sa­lons and blow-dry bar.

Kear­ney con­sid­ers him­self a “hands-on” in­vestor but you will not find him wield­ing a hair-dryer or spray-tan­ning gun.

He said: “I visit the pubs and the re­cruit­ment com­pany a lot – it is dif­fi­cult to go into the beauty sa­lon or blow-dry bar with­out peo­ple think­ing what the hell you are do­ing in there! I wouldn’t have in­volve­ment in the op­er­a­tional day-to-day side of things, but that isn’t to say I don’t take a huge in­ter­est.”

Yet, de­spite his bur­geon­ing em­pire, he ad­mits he hasn’t got firm plans as to what di­rec­tion he would like to take. “It is dif­fi­cult to make plans when you have no idea re­ally what you want to go into,” he says.

This in­ter­est in life be­yond the pitch is some­thing he has taken into his role as chair­man of Rugby Players’ Ire­land, the Ir­ish players’ union.

“No­body likes un­cer­tainty when it comes to em­ploy­ment. Think­ing of life af­ter rugby can be very daunt­ing. The players’ union in Ire­land works re­ally hard to en­sure the guys are re­ally well equipped for that.”

Act­ing as a voice for his fel­low Ir­ish pro­fes­sion­als and his dou­ble Grand Slam-win­ner sta­tus has com­pounded his role, de­spite his rel­a­tive youth, as some­thing of an elder states­man of Ir­ish rugby. Per­haps, one day, he might fol­low cousin Joe into pol­i­tics.

Fu­ture vi­sion: Rob Kear­ney, who has 83 caps for Ire­land, is plan­ning for his re­tire­ment with a host of busi­ness ven­tures

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