Rob Kearney on defying union "bigwig" that told him he'd never play GAA again
Welcome into the media tent.
"I'm used to you guys being a lot closer," Rob Kearney remarks as he is encircled by reporters for the umpteenth time in his rugby career. Only this time, it's different and it's not all down to social distancing.
The former Leinster, Ireland and Lions fullback is back home after s stint in Super Rugby with Western Force, in Australia, that was a prelude to a swan song.
Kearney is hoping to play for the Barbarians, against Samoa, in Twickenham at the end of November. He did not get the big farewell with Leinster before he left his home club, so a sold-out Twickenham, surrounded by some of the world's best players, may be the perfect opportunity to let it all hang out before hanging it up for good.
Kearney is holding court at Fire restaurant in Dublin, today, as he was confirmed in a punditry role for Premier Sports, who will be broadcasting every game live of the United Rugby Championship beginning this weekend. He will be in the Premier Sports studio to give his thoughts on Leinster's season opener against the Vodacom Bulls.
"It's nice to be back," he says. "I think it was almost the final six months for me to get away. I had always planned to play outside of the country but, the older I got and the longer my contracts with the union [IRFU] went on, the less likely it became.
"Western Force came around very late, but it was brilliant. It was an experience that I really enjoyed."
Kearney compares Super Rugby to the same level as elite Champions Cup games. Attack-wise, certainly. Defence? Maybe less so.
"It's funny," he says. "When you're on the ground there, teams are maybe committing 80% of their week to attack.
"You hear that notion that Southern Hemisphere teams don't really put as much into defence as they do attack, and that is true. But, playing in 20 degree heat with a good ball in dry conditions, it was very enjoyable."
One aspect of Kearney's time in Oz that got some notice was when he was mic'ed up in a game against Brumbies. It is not the first time Kearney had a mic strapped to him, and asked to be himself and yak away as normal during the game - Sky Sports trialled it before - but the in-game footage went down a treat thanks to it being shared widely across social media.
For a sport like rugby union in Australia to get some buzz from that was a bonus. "It's an added entity that gives the fans an extra insight," he says. "You could see it, even during the Tri Nations when they have access to players during the warm-ups.
"Rugby union is very much down the pecking order. You do feel for the Australians a little. The game is under real pressure there, and that is why the Wallabies win [over South Africa] at the weekend was so important. It was huge for them. Not just for that group of players - you'd be delighted for Michael Hooper and Dave Rennie - but for the game, as a whole, in that country.
"They're always fighting with AFL and league, which are so far ahead of them, and even cricket. They're down in this second pod, underneath, and are always fighting for viewers and trying to get kids involved in the grassroots."
After finishing up with Western Force, and politely saying no to a contract renewal, Kearney returned home. He was next spotted in his boots lining out for Cooley Kickhams in his native Louth.
"I played so much GAA when I was younger," he says.
"When I signed my first academy contract, there was a bigwig in the IRFU, who will remain nameless. I signed my first big Leinster contract at 18 and he said, 'Now that's it, you'll never play another game of Gaelic football in your life'. That has always stuck with me a little bit, since that day.
"I always said that if the body was good, I'd like to get back and play a few games. It's nice to get back home, and see my folks a couple of times a week. I hope to play Barbarians in November-time, so I needed something to keep me ticking over a little bit."