With 88 caps under his belt, two Grand Slams in his cabinet and having represented the British & Irish Lions – Rob Kearney is already cemented as one of Ireland’s greats.
Yet heading into their key Guinness Six Nations clash with Scotland on Saturday, it somehow felt like he had everything to prove again.
And prove it he did. The full-back was sublime in Edinburgh – assured under the high ball, powerful in the carry and precise in his positioning – everything he has been for the past 11 years of his international career.
A TIMELY RETURN
The Round One defeat to England came too soon for the 32-year-old in his recovery from a minor quad injury, according to coach Joe Schmidt, and an exciting back-three of Jacob Stockdale, Keith Earls and Robbie Henshaw – with the explosive Jordan Larmour to come off the bench – threatened to keep him out even once he was fit.
Only Schmidt knows whether Kearney was always going to return to the starting line-up for Scotland but injuries to Henshaw and centre Garry Ringrose made it a fait accompli and his presence at the heart of the Irish rearguard in Edinburgh was a comforting sight.
Peter O’Mahony was named Guinness Man of the Match but Kearney was undoubtedly right in the conversation.
England’s clever kicking from hand had taken advantage of both the space in behind the Ireland defence, and the fact that Henshaw was playing at full-back for the first time since his international debut six years priors, in that opening defeat.
But Kearney has always had almost sat-nav qualities to be in the right place at the right time – predicated on an innate understanding of the game and honed by years of experience.
And it was like he had never been away at BT Murrayfield as he negated Scotland’s aerial threat, providing a calming presence in defence and stopped an almost certain try with a timely hand on Tommy Seymour’s pass.
Yet it was in attack during the 22-13 triumph that he truly, and perhaps surprisingly in some people’s eyes, impressed.
AN ATTACKING FORCE
He passed the eyeball test as a seemingly omnipresent figure but the stats also bear this out.
He made 102 metres on just 11 carries – a figure only topped by Blair Kinghorn and Louis Picamoles in Round 2 of the Guinness Six Nations.
No-one in the Championship made more than his three linebreaks over 80 minutes, while he also registered a team-high two tackle breaks and an offload.
Earls and Stockdale looked more comfortable simply by his presence alone and his boot was a weapon from open play – making 130 metres from three kicks for a remarkable 43.4m average that was only bettered by Jayden Hayward in Italy’s contest with Wales.
Round Two of the 2019 Six Nations saw a number of impressive full-back performances – with Kinghorn shining after Stuart Hogg’s early injury and Elliot Daly looking sublime at Twickenham.
But Kearney – at 32 years young – might have just topped them all and as they look ahead to a Round Three contest against Italy with confidence, Ireland can thank their No.15 for putting them firmly back in the Championship hunt.