Rob Kearney deserving of final berth as he chases sixth league title
"The game starts 0-0 and it goes for 80 minutes. Every game is totally different."
Injuries to Dave Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Adam Byrne and Jordan Larmour [failed Head Injury Assessment last Friday] mean Leinster's back three has been shorn of some top options. Fortunately, though, they have Rob Kearney in reserve.
Felipe Contepomi is in relaxed form when he sits in front of a laptop in Leinster Rugby's Newstead Building headquarters out at UCD. The Leinster backs coach does not bide too much time on his side's 13-3 semi-final win over Munster but shares the same opinion as Leo Cullen - that Munster went box-kick crazy during the game.
Leinster have used 53 players over a season that, two pre-season blocks included, is now into its 14th month. Almost four months of that season included the lockdown period - during the pandemic - but players were still keeping fit and going through tactical notes and video clips that were being sent their way.
Much of the talk, before rugby returned, was about how Leinster and the other provinces would have playing squads that were in rude health. However, rugby being rugby, it did not take long for the tweaks and injuries to mount up once guys got back out on the field.
McFadden [calf] and Byrne [hamstring] have yet to feature since the Guinness PRO14 resumed, on August 22, while Dave Kearney pulled his hamstring in his first game back. Larmour received an accidental knee to the head during Leinster's semi-final win and though he failed HIA 1 on the night, the province stressed that it did not necessarily mean that was confirmation of a concussion.
Even before the blow to his head, Larmour had not done enough - in either games against Munster - to lock down the No.15 jersey for Saturday's final against Ulster [7:35pm kick-off]. While he was better under the high ball in the semi, the 23-year-old was guilty of some sloppy handling errors.
Larmour looks likely to get the all-clear once he gets through all of the Return To Play protocols that follow any HIA issues. That leaves Leinster with a big call to make. On having a two-time Grand Slam winner and four-time European Cup winner in reserve, Contepomi says:
"We have options and it shows how good this squad is that we have many options to cover players if they are not fit. But we hope Jordan is fit and available for selection. We'll then see what is the best selection for the weekend.
"But it is a real pleasure, and gift, to have players like Rob Kearney there to step up and train with us every day. And, who knows, maybe he is the fullback at the weekend; you never know."
Another option for the Leinster coaching staff would be to switch Larmour to the right wing, in order to accommodate Kearney at fullback. That would see stealth merchant Hugo Keenan miss out after what have been two decent outings [Ulster and Munster] in the No.14 jersey.
The rain shower before the semi-final kicked off nixed some plans to spread the ball wide, meaning Keenan did not get too much of the ball with open field in front of him, but he was solid in defence and very good on the kick-chase. At one stage in the first half, he timed an excellent tackle on Conor Murray, a split-second after the Munster scrum-half fielded a blue box-kick.
"I think Hugo had a good game," says Contepomi. "Sometimes it's awkward [with the weather] when you can't play what you planned, but you still have things that you don't need skills to do, and that is attitude. Hugo has a great attitude toward the game. He showed that at the weekend. He chased every ball hard, he tackled, he stood up, never gave up and worked really hard off the ball. He's a very interesting young player coming thriugh and it was great to see such a young player doing so well in a big occasion like a semi-final."
Rounding out the wide options for Leinster are Cian Kelleher and the versatile Rory O'Loughlin. Expect to see Kearney involved at the weekend, though, even if he is covering the back-field from the bench.
To my mind, Leinster should go with James Lowe and Larmour on either wing and leave Kearney at fullback to place that steady hand on the tiller for one final league game. Barring any more Ulster miracles, the Cooley native will be leaving the Aviva Stadium with his sixth league winners' medal on Saturday night.
ROB KEARNEY'S CURRENT HONOURS
- 4-time European Cup winner (2009, 2011, 2012, 2018)
- 5-time league winner (2008, 2013, 2014 2018, 2019)
- 4-time Six Nations winner (2009, 2014, 2015, 2018)
- 2 Grand Slams (2009 & 2018)
- 1 European Challenge Cup (2013)
- 1 Lions Series win (2013)
- 2012 European Player of the Year