Rob Kearney exits a glittering Irish rugby career, never to be replicated
Today, Rob Kearney confirmed his exit from Leinster and Irish rugby, and we will never see his like again.
For so many years he was the man who could not be moved from the number 15 jersey, in blue and green. He defied challenger after challenger, rode the wave of a changing game with his trademark consummate ease and lifted trophy after trophy in the most decorated career of any Irish international. He will be missed, more than we may realise.
Rob Kearney hung up his Leinster and Ireland boots in a manner typical of his career for the two sides; understated, minimal fuss, heart on the sleeve. Covid-19 and a number of other factors combined to prevent one of Irish rugby's greatest servants from receiving the send-off he so deserved. But that is the nature of the professional game. Cruel to some of its biggest names.
His last act in either jersey was, fittingly, lifting the Pro 14 title alongside fellow stalwart Fergus McFadden. Add it to the wall, Rob. It's already stacked with four European Cups, six domestic league titles, an Amlin Challenge Cup, four Six Nations, two Grand Slams, two Lions Tours and a European Player of the Year award. Some roll call.
For many years, across many different managers, Rob Kearney was one of the first names on the teamsheet. A specialist full-back, perhaps the last we will see in Irish rugby, he was everything Leinster and Ireland needed during its most successful ever period. Dependable under the high ball, sound in his defensive positioning and liable to attempt a left-footed drop goal from anywhere inside the opposition's half when the mood took him.
Eaten bread is often soon forgotten, and so it was that Kearney's Irish career was often inextricably tied with the success or failure of the international side. Notably during the Schmidt era in particular, he was routinely the lightning rod when things went wrong, but was sometimes taken for granted when things were going right.
Therein lies the Kearney complex; at times his greatest strengths were viewed as his, and Ireland's, greatest weaknesses. A man you'd bet your house on under a high ball could also be seen as an over-reliance on box-kicking. A dependable carrier is not an ankle-snapping, game-changing 15. A specialist fullback who owns that position like no one else in world rugby is also a man who can't play anywhere else.
But it's just not the case. Perhaps the fact that it took possibly the most exciting Irish prospect since Brian O'Driscoll to eventually dislodge him from that spot tells this story more than anyone else ever could. Jordan Larmour's arrival put Kearney under a pressure he simply hadn't felt at any other stage in his career. Up until then, players simply borrowed the 15 jersey from him, and politely folded it and left it back on his seat when the game was over.
But still he refused to budge, and as Leinster marched to an historic Double in Larmour's first season, Kearney remained the rock at the back while Larmour continued to impress from the wing, with both players starting in the two deciders. The young pretender to the throne, eager to ascend, spurred Kearney on to some of his best years in green and blue.
When Andy Farrell named his first proper Irish squad back in January of this year (yes, this year...), Kearney was absent. In a way, the back selection told its own story, where versatility was the name of the game. Of the 16 backs named by Farrell , 7 of those had experience playing at fullback, but only 3 of those had minutes under their belt at 15 in the season to date. With Rob Kearney's exit, one of the few specialist positions left in modern rugby may exit too.
It is frustrating that a player of his calibre will simply exit stage left without a curtain call. His last Irish game will have been the humbling defeat against New Zealand, his last Leinster game against Ulster in an empty Aviva Stadium. But that is professional sport; no one writes their own endings, and few get what they deserve in their final days.
We will simply never see the likes of Rob Kearney again, literally. A man synonymous with stability and success, and simply one of Ireland's greatest ever rugby players.
Go well, Rob.