‘Underachievers’ to champions – Kearney on Leinster’s European journey
June 24, 2020 11:17 am Conor Sharkey
Rob Kearney spoke to the Champions Rugby Show podcast about Leinster Rugby’s journey from Heineken Cup ‘underachievers’ to champions this week ahead of the live stream of the 2006 quarter-final win over Toulouse, which will be broadcast this Saturday at 5.45pm on championscuprugby.com.
Kearney made his Leinster Rugby debut in the 2005/06 season, featuring in 25 games in the campaign, including an appearance off the bench in that famous win over Toulouse.
“It was something that was really important to the club,” Kearney said of the away win over the then reigning European champions.
“We had a talented group of players who were consistently coming up short and underachieving a little bit. Michael Cheika came in and he certainly changed the whole dimension, how we were viewed as a club and he really brought us to a new level.
“It definitely felt like we’d made some big strides. Toulouse at the time were the very best of the best in European rugby. They had this incredible winning streak, they’d won so many Heineken Cups before that. Trying to go away and win in Toulouse was a very, very difficult task. We pulled out an incredible performance that day. It was all real good attacking rugby. Some of the question marks around the Leinster team around then were, could we do it on a tough day away in France? I think we proved on that day that we were more than capable of doing it.
“(Cheika) gave us a bit of grit, and a bit of hardness, which was something we were lacking at the time. In that Toulouse game, we showed that we had the flair and the attacking ability to punish teams but we probably needed that element of hardness. He trained us really, really hard. Some of my toughest pre-seasons I’ve had in my 15 years were my first few ones under Michael Cheika. He single-handedly changed the culture of our team. He brought us to a place where we could actually start succeeding and winning some of those tough, physical games when you get to the final stages of the competition.”
Kearney played in seven Heineken Cup matches in his debut season, including four starts on the left wing in the first four pool games.
Though he had six Celtic League appearances beforehand, he said the first European game against Bath at the RDS was an eye-opening experience.
“I think I was quite shocked at the up in pace, the up in intensity from those league games. You never know how much of a step up something is going to be until you actually experience it. I think my first Heineken Cup game was against Bath in the RDS. It was the first time we were playing in the RDS since we moved from Donnybrook Stadium. It was a big deal. It was something that I really enjoyed, obviously, but I do remember distinctly getting a shock.”
The confidence from that victory over Toulouse provided Leinster with the platform to push on in future seasons.
After a league title was claimed in 2008, the following season led to an unforgettable European campaign which included the ‘Bloodgate’ quarter-final against Harlequins and the clash with Munster at Croke Park.
“I think the quarter-final against Harlequins, the ‘Bloodgate’ game, I think that was the first time that we really demonstrated as a team that we’ve added another layer to our game and how we played rugby. We defended unbelievably well that day, we kept them tryless. We didn’t score a try ourselves. When people spoke about Leinster back then it was, ‘ok, we’ll put more points on the opposition, we’ll let a fair few tries in but we’ll try and score more’. On that day we definitely showed that we were a team who could defend at the very highest level of European rugby as well as attacking strongly.
“I picked up an illness maybe three or four weeks after the Harlequins quarter-final. I didn’t actually get to play in that (Munster) game in Croke Park. When I look back on my career now, if there was one game that I could go back and play in, that would be it. It changed Irish rugby, it changed Leinster Rugby in terms of our fanbase. When we had that semi-final in 2006 in Lansdowne Road it was 80 per cent Munster supporters in Dublin. Fast forward to Croke Park and you could see that the brand of Leinster Rugby had changed, the support base had changed. It was the perfect day for us to put our marker down and say that now we can finally start to compete with Munster and start to win some trophies.”
As for the final against Leicester Tigers, Kearney reflected on the nerves of the day and how the grit Leinster showed helped them over the line in a tight contest.
“It was difficult. It was our first final in Europe. That brings its own elements of nerves and pressure and anxiety. But the mettle that we showed on that day… It takes a really good team to get to their first final in Europe and win it. You see so many teams who have been through those knock-out stages and fall at the last hurdle or the second last hurdle. I think for us to get to our first final and win it gave us such an incredible ability to go on after those years and keep winning more.
“Grit and character on the big days, there’s no replacement for it. That’s what Michael Cheika tried to instil in us in those few years. As a coach, he knew that unless you had strong characters and tough-minded players to be able front-up on those occasions that you’re going to fall at that final stage. For him to have the foresight to see what we needed as a team and instil it in us is a testament to him as a coach.
“I was still quite young for that final, I was 22, 23, although I had maybe three years of Heineken Cup experience under my belt. When you’re that young you certainly do look around to the older guys, the Shane Horgans, the Brian O’Driscolls, Malcolm O’Kelly, Felipe Contepomi was incredible in that campaign for us. When you are young in the team there’s definitely an onus to become a leader within yourself. You might not always be the most vocal on the field at that point but you have to lead by your actions too. The more you feel a part of the team, the more you are able to develop yourself as a leader.”
Leo Cullen captained that 2009 Heineken Cup-winning side and Kearney believes Cullen’s experience as a leader on those big days has carried over into his role as head coach.
“He had so much good experience with handling the big day and captaining some huge occasions, there’s a real calmness to him on the big day. Players can sense that. When you see a coach who’s very chilled and has confidence in the team and doesn’t get too uptight or anxious about the big day, it instils a lot of confidence in the players. When you’ve got that and Stuart Lancaster, who has a really strong philosophy in terms of how he wants us to play, they make a really good team together and they complement each other really well.”
Focusing back on the present and the resumption of the 2019/20 season, Kearney said his sole focus is on adding more medals to a personal haul that is already second to none.
“I’ve had some great days down through the years with Leinster Rugby. When you look back on the past you think of so many brilliant days, so many heartache days but ultimately you look at the trophy cabinet and appreciate all those big games and trophies that you’ve won. Thankfully now I’m in a position to head into the next three or four months where I can add to that. There’s still the league trophy on the table and the Heineken Cup trophy on the table. That is really just the sole focus at the moment. I’m just trying to add a few more medals to the locker, I suppose.”