Leinster’s defeat to Saracens in last weekend’s Heineken Cup quarter-final brought with it the confirmation of Rob Kearney’s retirement. He hangs up his boots as the most successful player in the history of Irish rugby. As a result, there is a huge gap in the Irish team that has yet to be filled.
Despite being left aside by Andy Farrell for the 2020 6 Nations, Kearney’s assurance and solidity at fullback have not been replaced.
The Clongowe’s Wood graduate made his Irish debut during the 2007 tour of Argentina. Now, he hangs up his boots in 2020 with a career to be proud of. Specifically, he has won four 6 Nations, four Heineken Cups, six Pro 12/14, one Challenge Cup, and the 2012 European Rugby Player of the year. In addition, he went on two Lions Tours in 2009 and 2013.
Of the four 6 Nations he has won, 2009 and 2018 were grand slams. He is the only player to start in the winning match on both occasions. In the same way, he started in both victories over the All Blacks in 2016 and 2018. He calls it quits with 95 caps and 82 points in an Irish jersey. Furthermore, he has over 200 appearances for Leinster to brag about.
Wishing this exquisite Rob Kearney drop goal a very happy 8th birthdaypic.twitter.com/GxTHVh2aC9
— Balls.ie (@ballsdotie) April 29, 2020
What made Rob Kearney such a prolific full-back was his security under the high ball and his ability to open teams up on the counter-attack. Of course, his booming left-boot was another valuable asset.
Passing the Torch
Since he made the green number 15 his own, Kearney was largely unchallenged for the position. Much of this was because he was so hard to compete with. Even now, with the likes of Jordan Larmour and Will Addison coming to the fore, the gap remains.
Larmour is the obvious replacement for Kearney. Indeed, he was the reason why Kearney was only at the Saracens game in a tracksuit and sat out the Pro14 final. But, Larmour is young and has a long way to go. Where they compare is in their speed and ability to slot into the attack. On the other hand, Larmour is confident in the tackle like his predecessor.
At the same time, Larmour does not thrive under the high ball as Kearney did. Consequently, the 23-year-old full-back has been targeted profusely by oppositions hoping to capitalise on his mistakes. Until he improves this part of his game, the comparisons between him and Kearney should be quenched.
Another contender is Ulster’s Will Addison. Before the start of the 2020 6 Nations, many thought Addison had as good a chance as Larmour to be picked at 15. However, Farrell stuck with the young Leinster prodigy. Addison had to make do with a place in the 23, and more often sat games out altogether.
His ability is not in doubt though. Unfortunately, Addison has had major injury concerns this season. Without him Ulster look a lot lighter. While it looked like he could recover during the lockdown, the return to training led to his back injury flaring up.
At 27, Addison is closer in stature to Kearney and his physicality offers another dimension. Although, the upcoming internationals are key to claiming the jersey for the long term and Addison needs to get fit.
One silver lining Ulster have found from this is Michael Lowry (22). The young full-back has impressed when called upon, and even stepped in at outhalf against Toulouse. Small, quick, and versatile, Lowry could be molded into a version of New Zealand’s Damian McKenzie. If allowed to develop properly, he could be a full-back for the future.
Kearney’s closest competition in his international career likely came from Simon Zebo. Yet, Zebo was often deployed on the wing instead. But, many would argue that 15 was his best position. Certainly, this is where he has thrived since moving to Racing 92. Now 30, a return to Ireland looks unlikely as Zebo is flourishing in the French capital. However, many were disappointed that he wasn’t afforded the same courtesy as Johnny Sexton was when playing abroad.
Besides, the current Irish squad has backs who possess the versatility to play at full-back already. Robbie Henshaw has done it before. Likewise with Andrew Conway and Jacob Stockdale. But these players are best deployed in their primary positions and are unlikely to be a permanent fix.
One thing that is clear is that Rob Kearney’s retirement leaves a gap in the Irish team that needs to be filled. These are big shoes to fill. However, the competition between Larmour and Addison is only healthy. Currently, it seems to be swinging Larmour’s way and it would appear that it is his jersey to lose.
They could do a lot worse than look to Rob Kearney for inspiration.
With the curtain drawn on Leinster's season, that's a wrap on the careers of Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden
Pictured here in happier times. Some servants and they'll be sorely missed 👋 pic.twitter.com/DEcPvkHT8o
— Pat McCarry (@patmccarry) September 19, 2020