Kearney only having one position is his greatest strength - Flannery
Just because he only wears one number on his back, and he's bloody good at it, doesn't make him any less of a player.
In a tournament where Ireland have largely flattered to deceive, a number of players have put their hands up time and time again. Josh van der Flier, Garry Ringrose and Chris Farrell stand out as players who have been consistently impressive, and you couldn't but add veteran Rob Kearney into that mix.
He's often been an easy example thrown out when Ireland have looked blunt in attack. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing more frustrating than watching him return a kick and almost appear magnetically drawn to the first defender. Often, he's an easy scapegoat when Ireland fail to make an impact on a game. But not for Joe Schmidt.
He's been an absolute mainstay in Schmidt's sides in blue and green over the guts of the past decade, one of his trusted generals and seemingly undroppable. Even the emergence of the electric Jordan Larmour in recent years, as well as a host of other pretenders to the throne, has seen Rob Kearney so often the first name on the teamsheet that he may as well tattoo the number 15 onto his back.
Until this year.
Consistency has always been key to Joe Schmidt's sides. So when news broke in February that Robbie Henshaw would be starting at 15 against England in the opening game of the 6 Nations, it shocked everyone. When England tore Ireland asunder in the Aviva Stadium, Henshaw found what Kearney has over the last few years: the 15 on your back can often be interchangeable with a target when things go wrong.
Rob Kearney's importance was emphasised in that game, conspicuous by his absence, Ireland missed him sorely. Whether or not Joe Schmidt would have doubled down on the uncharacteristic call was taken out of his hands by an injury to Henshaw that saw him ruled out of the next game against Scotland. Rob Kearney came back, did what he always has done, and moved on. No laser surgery required just yet.
He's even managed to escape the one thing Schmidt seems to consistently demand from his players: versatility. If you look at the outside backs taken to the tournament, Keith Earls (wing, centre, fullback), Jacob Stockdale (wing, fullback), Andrew Conway (wing, fullback), Jordan Larmour (wing, centre, fullback) and Rob Kearney (fullback), one name sticks out as missing something in their arsenal. Yet, Schmidt believes him to be that good that he's worth losing out in positional cover. It does mean, however, that when Kearney drops out of the starting 15... He inevitable drops out of the matchday 23.
Injury saw him ruled out of the opening clash against Scotland at the World Cup, and such was Ireland's dominance in that game that Jordan Larmour was rarely troubled. Kearney returned for the humbling defeat to Japan, scoring one of Ireland's early tries before departing the field early due to a HIA. Just five days later, he was back on the field against Russia, again scoring a try. But there was something different and very un-Kearney about this one.
Source: YouTube/World Rugby
Used for a simple strike play off a lineout on the Russian 22, Kearney burst through the sparse Russian cover. Faced with a choice between taking on Denis Simplikevich or passing off to either Garry Ringrose or Andrew Conway in acres of space, Kearney bucked his usual risk-adverse game, tucked the ball under his arm and drove for the line. A point to prove?
Kearney loves World Cups. He's scored 5 tries in his last 6 games at the tournament, and 6 of his 16 tries for Ireland have come at the three World Cups he's worn green for. Just because he only wears one number on his back, and he's bloody good at it, doesn't make him any less of a player. In fact, it's arguably what makes him so impactful.
Speaking on The JOEpan Rugby Show this week, Jerry Flannery was quick to heap praise on the Leinster man;
"I think that going into the World Cup I think the issue was almost that Rob (Kearney) was the only guy who was a nailed on 15 for us. I thought Will Addisson would have been a good shout coming out because of his performance in the Welsh match, the last Welsh game. Jordan Larmour definitely has X Factor, he will be a star, if he's not already a star. But he probably isn't as proven as Rob at 15, so that's probably where there was a little bit of indecision around 'ok, well we've got Rob but who else do we have after that?'. So I think more Rob's biggest strength going out to the World Cup was his being a specialist 15."
On whether or not that inability to cover elsewhere on the pitch counts against him? Flannery was quick to put that to bed.
"I think that there's enough versatility in the rest of the squad that they can accommodate anywhere else that there's holes. Keith Earls can play in the centre, Stockdale has played 15 in the past, Conway can play 15 and can play on the wing, Ringrose can play on the wing, can play centre. There's good verstaility there. I'm not sure whether it's based on performance, I don't think he's going to make the bench because of the other players that are there, if he's not in the starting 15. But look, it's a big opportunity for Jordan Larmour and hopefully he takes it."
As Ireland gear up for their clash against Samoa this weekend, and hopefully a Quarter Final clash the following Saturday or Sunday, Rob Kearney will do what he has always done in the rare times he has found himself out of a matchday squad; watch, wait and then deliver again.
For a full preview of Ireland v Samoa, as well as a look at just how much of an effect Typhoon Hagibis will have on Ireland's World Cup campaign, check out the full episode of The JOEpan Rugby Show in the link below: