'Jesus Christ! How am I going to put up with this lad for nine weeks?!'
"You know, it’s often the ones that surprise you most."
Rob Kearney was still recovering from a rough bout of the mumps, during which he lost over a stone in weight, when he was named in his first ever British & Irish Lions squad.
Aged 23 at the time, Kearney was a presumptive lock to travel to South Africa with the Lions, but he ended up in hospital after contracting the mumps. Assured by Leinster and IRFU medics that Kearney would be good to go, head coach Ian McGeechan selected him and Wales' Lee Byrne as the only two fullbacks in his squad [Keith Earls was a utility back].
During his recent House of Rugby Ireland appearance [LISTEN from 8:45 below], Kearney shared his memories of that tour and what his early impressions of Mike Phillips were, before they both became Lions.
"One of the best things about the Lions tours," says Kearney, "is how quickly you build up relationships with the other teams.
"You go through years of big Six Nations matches, where you’re trying to kick the heads off each other, and the only thing you want to do is win for your team. And people talk about the ethos of the Lions, and how special it is.
"For me, the most special thing is how quickly you build bonds and relationships with players, from those other countries. 2009 was class because Ian McGeechan was head coach. There was still a little bit of ab old-school element to it. We went out on the piss on Tuesday or Wednesday nights, if you weren’t involved in the game on Saturday. 2013, that element had completely gone.
"I’d say it’s even gotten progressively more professional as the time has gone on. Definitely for me, that 2009 Lions Tour was the most enjoyable tour I’ve been on."
When it comes to the biggest characters in the Lions squad, many that toured in 2009 would put Wales No.8 Andy Powell at the top of their list. For Kearney, though, it was one of Powell's compatriots that stood out.
"You know," he says, "it’s often the ones that surprise you most.
"You play against guys like the likes of Mike Phillips for Wales, and he’s an absolute arsehole on the field, and he’s always getting in your face. Everyone’s always going after him and no-one likes him.
"You see his name getting selected, on the squad announcement, and you’re like, ‘Jesus Christ! How am I going to put up with this lad for nine weeks?!’
"And then he ends up being one of the most soundest blokes. Life and soul of the party. Best friends with everyone. And, again, that’s one of the nice things - that people who you have pre-conceived notions about, end up being some of the soundest blokes."
The 2009 Lions vs. South Africa Test Series is recalled, by all that played in it [on both sides], as the most physical stretch of games they have played in.
By the end of the Second Test, with the Springboks 2-0 up, a number of players from both sides were out of the final match with serious injuries.
"That game itself was just barbaric," Kearney recalls. "There were lads falling left, right and centre.
"There were a few times in your career when you’re just happy to be a fullback at at the very back of the field, and let all the other 14 players in front of you just do the tackling. That was definitely one of those games. I was like, ‘Thank Christ I’m not playing up there!’"
WATCH THAT ROB KEARNEY INTERVIEW HERE: