When Dave Kearney lined out on the left wing for Ireland’s opening Rugby World Cup warm-up game against Italy at the Aviva Stadium in August, it marked the closing of a disappointing and frustrating chapter in his career.
That was Kearney’s 18th cap for Ireland, his first appearance in green since a November 2017 win over Fiji 21 months earlier.
Within that time and preceding it, the younger Kearney sibling’s career was blighted with unfortunate injuries ranging from soft-tissue problems to shoulder, groin and ankle issues.
In the 2016/17 season, he made just eight appearances for Leinster followed by 11 appearances for the eastern province in the 2017/18 campaign.
Last season, he featured 14 times for the PRO14 champions – the highest level of game-time he put under his belt since the 2015/16 campaign.
This run of games propelled him back into the Ireland reckoning and ultimately led to that long-awaited return against Conor O’Shea’s side.
“At the start of the year, it was always my goal to get back into the Irish squad,” Kearney said speaking as a Bord Bia Quality Mark ambassador ahead of World Egg Day.
“Leinster gives you that platform to get in. It was great for my confidence from where I was up to two years previously.
“I was playing Leinster A games in Donnybrook. Those days were tough.
“To finally get back in the mix, wear the jersey again, was a positive to take, builds up the confidence and you take that back into the Leinster squad.”
The positive experience gained from being in Joe Schmidt’s extended Ireland squad over the summer has certainly provided a boost to Kearney’s form. The 30-year-old scored a hat-trick of tries in Leinster’s opening PRO14 clash against Benetton two weeks ago.
However, despite a scintillating start to the season in blue, the disappointment of not wearing green in Japan still lingers.
“It’s the only opportunity, in some cases, you might get,” Kearney said of his start against Italy in August.
“I felt pretty good during the games. I thought in my head I would get another start, maybe that Wales away game. Once I didn’t get that, I had a feeling that maybe I was going to miss out.
“But, at the same time, it was great to be back in the mix there. It was a year and a half back to my last game. I enjoyed being back in and there were definitely positives to take away from it. Two years ago, I was in a bad position, just kept getting injured. To work my way back into the mix was good for me, good for my confidence.”
The outcome of professional sport and particularly rugby, can be cruel and often down to lady luck.
In that 29-10 win over Italy, Andrew Conway shone on the other wing – which is a lot easier when the ball comes your way as Kearney explains.
“There is just so much luck involved in sport. In the Treviso game, I got the ball 15 times. In the Italy game, I got it three or four times. There is a lot of luck involved too.”
“Games are different. Andy got a lot of ball in that game. I think that’s why I actually moved towards the left-wing when I first came into the Academy. I played full-back at school and Leinster 18s and 20s.
“It is one of the reasons I picked the left-wing because people naturally move the ball from right to left. It is easier to get it out to the left.”
Unfortunately for Kearney, that methodology didn’t work out too well for him against the Azzuri and when he was introduced as a second-half substitute in the victory over Wales in Cardiff, the ball continued to evade him.
“Once you get in the squad, you give yourself opportunities to make it. Obviously, I would have liked more game time, more opportunities. That Wales away game, I didn’t touch the ball once the whole half. That was frustrating because that was my last chance.”
For the Louth native, not making a World Cup squad is understandably going to sting for some time. But he can take some solace in the fact that he produced the best to his ability in the situations in which he could control.
“On a personal note, when you’re injured it’s completely out of your control and I think it’s probably tougher but the fact I was given a shot and I did everything I could to be there, it probably doesn’t make it as difficult.
“Obviously you’re still incredibly disappointed in not getting selected but the fact I did give it a shot and it wasn’t meant to be, that makes it a small bit easier I guess. At least it was in your control and I gave it a whack.”
There’s often not much consideration given to the harsh realities which players experience when they’re out injured for prolonged periods. Suffering setback after setback can play on one’s mind, make you question if you will ever get back to your best and rather unfortunately in the cut-throat nature of professional sport, can lead to the scary thought of whether you will remain employed.
“I said that Toulouse game (January 2019) was probably the changing point for my season. I wasn’t meant to start that game, it could have been Rob (Kearney) that pulled out. I came in and that’s your opportunity.
“That’s when you start to get more opportunities on the back of that. But yeah, I’m enjoying my rugby now again and I’m enjoying being back. (I’m) enjoying training, enjoying playing games.
“I suppose during that period where you’re injured, there’s pressure on you then when you’re up for contract and you hadn’t played much. You don’t really enjoy the rugby then. At the moment I am, I’m in a good spot and I’m enjoying it. The body is feeling good, so hopefully, I can push on from last season.”
That pressure which Kearney speaks can come from so many different directions and sources. Besides coaches, teammates and your own personal standards, a significant amount comes from the outside – the media, supporters, the general rugby public.
Social media is ruthless and often toxic. It can lead to an array of problems. Kearney does his best to block it out, a lesson he had to learn after Ireland’s dramatic exit from the 2015 Rugby World Cup at the hands of Argentina.
“It’s hard to avoid it (outside criticism) really, isn’t it? You just have to try and not listen to it. Try to not read it. For me personally, I don’t like going onto Twitter and reading what people have to say, people’s opinions or people commenting on performances.
“I try not to do that and I probably learned that from the last World Cup. The Argentina game is still, by far, the worst day I’ve had in my career.”
“Confidence takes a hit and for me individually, I didn’t have a great game that day (Argentina 2015). I think people probably hold onto that for a long time too. You’re remembered for a bad performance more than a good one sometimes.”
Back in the Ireland picture, a hat-trick on the opening day of the season – let’s hope that ball keeps coming Kearney’s way.
Bord Bia Quality Mark ambassador Dave Kearney cracks on with the World Egg Day celebrations. To celebrate World Egg Day on Friday 11th October, Bord Bia has created new egg recipes to inspire culinary creativity and is encouraging the nation to always look for the Bord Bia Quality Mark when buying eggs. Get egg-inspired at www.bordbia.ie/qualityeggs. Pictures by Marc O’Sullivan at Irishtown Stadium.