The Best of the Best: Rob Kearney
November 8, 2023 3:00 pm Des Berry
In the first of a new series, Rob Kearney speaks with Des Berry about the ‘Best of the Best’ he has faced in his storied career.
ROB KEARNEY – UCD, Leinster, Western Force, Ireland, British & Irish Lions (2005-2021)
Rob Kearney’s international career has spanned a remarkable 14 seasons.
The Leinster Rugby, Ireland and British & Irish Lions full-back has stood the test of time as one of the most decorated players in the game.
He has taken an outsider’s approach to his overall selection, opting to exclude Irish players based on his uncertainty over his objectivity.
When it comes to the level of competition, Kearney’s 15 consists of the best he has battled against in the international arena.
15. BEN SMITH (New Zealand)
I have always held the highest respect for those who have had longevity and Ben stands in comparison with anyone in my own position.
The ability to turn a game is canny and it is aided by his under-rated power. He was always able to break the first tackle as a counter-attacker from deep.
There wasn’t any weakness to his game. He was just the complete full-back.
14. JOE ROKOCOKO (New Zealand)
The lethal combination of pure power, from his height, build and weight, and footwork made it impossible to stop the man.
This is even before you had to take account of his pace when he got into any space in nearly 70 caps for the All Blacks. He retired from international rugby far too soon.
He moved to France in his prime to play for Bayonne and Racing 92 for a total of seven years.
13. MANU TUILAGI (England)
Rugby is a game of momentum. It is about getting over the gain line and Manu still does that every single time.
He has a different dimension of power. It almost always takes two people to stop him from making a clean break.
That means there is a mismatch, a hole or an overlap somewhere else. You are playing with one man less every time he takes the ball up.
12. MATT GITEAU (Australia)
He was what we like to call a triple-threat when he was on the ball in that he could kick, pass and run to a high standard.
Matt was perfect for the Wallabies in that he provided that second distributor, so pivotal to how they liked to play the game.
When players come from the southern hemisphere to Europe, they can be a disappointment. He was incredible for Toulon.
11. CHESLIN KOLBE (South Africa)
It is easy to look at Cheslin physically and keep him off the list because he isn’t the biggest and can be vulnerable in the air.
When you are trying to defend him one-on-one, the chances of stopping him are in the 0-to-10% range.
That world-class footwork regularly embarrasses the best defenders in the game, the 2015 World Cup final immediately springing to mind.
10. DAN CARTER (New Zealand)
I am just realising I am missing a right-footed kicker with Carter and Giteau. But, of course, Dan could use both feet.
He was another triple threat and the vision to play the game a step ahead of the opposition made him a true test.
The goal-kicking, drop goals and tactical kicking were top-notch, underpinning his running game for which he had a really strong fend.
He was just a match-winner.
9. AARON SMITH (New Zealand)
The scrum-half position starts with service and the speed, accuracy and timing of the pass are exceptional.
The support running lines were just the best I played against, always tracking play from the inside.
His ability to always be upfield and score so many of those tries were down to following play and taking very clever lines.
1. GETHIN JENKINS (Wales)
This phenomenal loose-head prop made three British & Irish Lions tours in 2005, 2009 and 2013.
Gethin had such an engine on him. He would regularly go 80 minutes with all that entailed at the ruck and in the scrum, lineout and maul of the set-piece.
More than that, he was very athletic, could ball-play with the best of them and was tremendous over the ball.
2. JOHN SMIT (South Africa)
He was the captain for South Africa’s 2007 World Cup win and when they beat The Lions 2-1 in the 2009 series.
John was one of those who was much bigger in person, tall at over 6-foot and, apparently, over 120 kilos.
Obviously, that is massive for a hooker and this played into his reputation as a renowned scrummager with a hard edge.
3. CARL HAYMAN (New Zealand)
This was a monster of a man. Like Smit, you don’t actually appreciate how huge he is until you get close up to him on the field.
Your tight-head has to be that anchor at the scrum, powerful and durable enough to cope with two men, the hooker and loose-head.
He was an old-school, hard-nosed operator, who could strike fear into those who were not fully committed to the cause.
4. BRODIE RETALLICK (New Zealand)
It has often been said how the All Blacks front-five make a difference with their passing ability and Brodie is peerless in this area.
He has created so much space for the outside backs down through the years with his use of the ball.
This comes on top of his stellar work on the basics of his position. He is the only second-row to be named World Player of the Year.
5. VICTOR MATFIELD (South Africa)
This is your lineout operator, incredible off restarts, just a magnet for the ball when it was in the air.
Of course, he was a devoted student of the lineout and set our own Paul O’Connell his greatest challenge when Ireland played the Springboks.
Those hands were remarkably versatile in that he was a nuisance at the breakdown and a danger in open play with his passing.
6. THIERRY DUSAUTOIR (France)
This is one of those multi-skilled forwards, who was able to play all across the back row.
He was a very good chop tackler, which you need, to allow others the opportunity to compete for the ball on the floor.
He was just a great rugby player. You couldn’t really put a label on him. He could do ‘all of the above’ and no one will forget his performance against New Zealand in the 2007 World Cup quarter-final.
7. RICHIE McCAW (New Zealand)
Someone like Dusautoir would have worked wonderfully with the 2015 World Cup-winning captain.
Richie was just a pest over the ball, treading the offside line carefully. He got more than his fair share of decisions at the breakdown.
In fairness, it was his ability to walk that line so finely and rarely get punished for it that made him the force he was for so long.
8. KIERAN READ (New Zealand)
It was the relentless nature of his game that put him on a pedestal.
He always had the engine on for 80 minutes, never shirked a challenge, and was skilled from the base of the scrum.
Another distributor, Kieran was as comfortable in the wide channels where that offloading gene was second nature.