While the Irish rugby team have become no strangers to success over the past decade, in the early 2000s, that was not always the case.
2009 signaled a shift in Ireland’s fortunes. Their first Six Nations Grand Slam win in 61 years was the catalyst for the standing Ireland now holds in World Rugby.
Declan Kidney was the man who oversaw that victory in his first year in charge. Just as he had led Munster to victory the year previous, the Cork man united his charges and guided them into uncharted territory.
To many, that unification began at an Ireland camp in Enfield in late 2008 when a young Rob Kearney infamously stood up and addressed a lingering issue between the Munster and Leinster players.
Many say the moment was overhyped, others say it was the moment that drove Ireland forward. Kearney hadn’t intended to question the Munster contingent but with any heightened situation, intentions can be interpreted in many different ways.
Munster and Ireland lock Donncha O’Callaghan outlined his interpretation of Kearney’s comments in his 2011 autobiography, ‘Joking Apart’, written with Denis Walsh, and while he commended the young Leinster full-back for addressing the issue, he wrote that the meeting was given more significance than it deserved.
“We were broken up into small groups to discuss issues, problems, where we were going, where we wanted to go, how we were going to get there”, he explained.
“It was a blank sheet and no subject was off-limits.”
Kidney has been identified as a character who likes to get debates going amongst his players, for opinions to be said and left to hang in the air so players can ponder over them and soak them in. That was certainly the case that night in Enfield when the commitment of the then reigning Heineken Cup champions to the Irish jersey was placed under the spotlight.
“Rob had the courage to raise a difficult issue that must have been on the minds of other players too. He said that when he watched Munster play, he saw a special spirit and he wondered if we could match that spirit with the Ireland jersey.
“He chose his words carefully and it wasn’t intended to be a dig, but the implication was clear: did the Munster players in the Ireland squad give more to the red jersey than the green jersey?”
Ronan O’Gara, as the facilitator in Kearney’s group, brought the issue to the entire Irish camp without naming the man involved. However, as the debate increased, the then 22-year-old stood up and explained his thinking. Despite reports of Marcus Horan and himself coming to blows, O’Callaghan insists that nobody took Kearney’s head off.
“None of the Munster players accepted that they gave any less for Ireland than they did for Munster, but at the same time, it made us examine our consciences. Were we different in Ireland camp? Did it mean less? The answer was no. Emphatically.
“Was Rob right to bring it up? Yes, absolutely. If that issue was lurking in the background, it needed to be brought out into the open and confronted.”
O’Callaghan and Horan did approach Kearney in training later that day but simply to make it clear that they respected him for it. The issue had been raised, dealt with, and they were all moving on.
However, as their first game in the 2009 Six Nations approached, it was still a lingering thought at the back of the Munster players’ heads.
“On the week of the France game a couple of months later, though, it was on my mind again and I know it was on the mind of other Munster players. ‘Our commitment to his jersey was questioned’ we all thought. ‘We need to deliver a performance that blows the question out of the water’.
The rest, as they say, is history. Ireland stormed through the rounds before setting up a grand-stand finish against Wales when Ronan O’Gara’s drop-goal clinched victory for Kidney’s men.
So, was Kearney the inadvertent hero of that famous year for Irish rugby? He himself admitted in a 2014 interview with the Irish Times that “it was a big moment that aided the national team.”
However, Donncha O’Callaghan isn’t one to give the incident undue credit. For him, a night out on the town after their round two victory over Italy was a far more important bonding experience for the Irish rugby team and helped set the tone for the future.
“By about four in the morning, Rob was only fit for his bed. We hailed a taxi and bundled him into it.
“‘Lads’, he said, ‘we’re going fucking places'”.