IRFU central contract is exactly what Rob Kearney deserves
"My perception that I can still do it is very strong in my own head."
Back in September, Rob Kearney was positively stewing after picking up another hamstring injury. He had come through pre-season in good nick and had started Leinster's Guinness PRO14 campaign likewise, only for the injury scourge to strike again.
Speaking to him at Carlow RFC that day, Kearney would not be drawn on his return date but wryly commented that he had 'dealt with enough of them' to have a fair idea when he could get back to full fitness. He told The Hard Yards:
"I've still been able to hold onto the national jersey and the provincial jersey when I've been fit."
In fairness to Kearney, he's right. The No.15 jersey has been his, for Leinster and Ireland, when he has been fit. He was named, somewhat unexpectedly, in Joe Schmidt's Guinness Series squad and, having appeared for Leinster against Ulster, was starting fullback against South Africa and Argentina.
Having faced some critics during Ireland's 2017 Six Nations campaign, and missed the England win and summer tour, the 32-year-old answered most doubters with two vibrant, counter-attacking performances against the Springboks and Pumas.
Rob Kearney OWNS that 15 jersey https://t.co/Hnmnlum6Pm
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) November 26, 2017
He may have faced a tougher fight for that fullback slot had Simon Zebo been in the squad but his decision to move to France's Top 14 saw him effectively shunted out of the international selection window.
The fact that Zebo was only offered a provincial contract with Munster, despite having featured in 13 of Ireland's previous 19 Tests, was a major bug-bear for himself, his representatives, Munster, and many Irish rugby fans.
One wonders what the reaction will then be when Kearney, as expected, gets a central contract from the IRFU.
The 31-year-old is out of contract next June and is in line to be offered an 18-month deal with the union, one that will take up up to the end of the 2019 World Cup. A two-season deal - taking Kearney up to 34 - was being sought but the union is looking to offer a similar contract to the one Ireland captain Rory Best has broadly agreed to.
Some may begrudge Kearney the deal, while others will decry it as another sign of Joe Schmidt's Leinster bias. To my mind, however, Kearney deserves it and has earned it.
Undoubtedly a player who improves once he gets a run of games, Kearney has been one of Schmidt's go-to men and has been part of many of Ireland's biggest successes of recent years - England and France [twice] in 2015, New Zealand and Australia in 2016 and wins over France and South Africa this year. He continued his international form with another couple of solid Champions Cup outings for Leinster.
While Kearney may have been unfortunate with niggling injuries in the past few years, his run of games, and form, arrives slap-bang in the middle of contract negotiation season. His contract talks would have been boosted by Zebo's departure and the likelihood that Joey Carbery will deputise for Johnny Sexton rather than challenge for his 15 jersey.
He has 10 years of experience on the international stage and merits the extension up until the World Cup, much as Gordon D'Arcy did ahead of the 2015 tournament. It may even be on a slightly reduced rate from the three-season contract he signed back in November 2014. Kearney will be dead-set on making it to Japan but, even if he doesn't, he will fight damn hard to hang on to his fullback role in this Irish team.
If a Conway, Jacob Stockdale or Andrew Conway - or even Jordan Larmour - eventually bumps him out it will be because their form demands it. That, ultimately, will benefit the national team and is worth paying for.