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 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