Rob Kearney used to glorify the company and its great surroundings. Having played in four European Cup finals for Leinster, the former Ireland full-back is now working to forge closer ties with his stalwart cousin… Joe Biden.
The 37-year-old replaced the oval ball with the oval office. He adopts a “surreal” shift from athletic acclaim to being honored by the President of the United States, and being welcomed into his high-security indoor sanctuary.
In the build-up to Saturday’s Champions Cup final at Aviva between Leinster and La Rochelle, Kearney – who will be on captaincy – explains to Mail Sport how he discovered he was so well connected.
“In 2016 he was the vice president of America and he was coming to Ireland for a five-day trip,” he says. “The Taoiseach — the prime minister of Ireland — called me and said, ‘Joe Biden is coming’ and I was thinking, ‘I think he’s the vice president of America,’ but I wasn’t terribly interested in American politics at the time.
“But then Enda Kenny said to me, ‘We went back through his family history, and we realized you were fifth cousins. We’re having lunch for him next week, and do you want to come? So I went with (my brother) Dave. We met him and he was a gentleman.
Ireland legend Rob Kearney (pictured) has replaced the oval ball with the Oval Office
The former Irish fullback greets US President Joe Biden (R) at the White House in March
He told us, “Our Irish family has been so great to us, why don’t you guys come over to America and we’ll return the favor?”. So, Dave and I hopped on a plane a few weeks later and we were in the White House.
After being acquainted, distant family ties were nurtured and strengthened. Kearney and his parents have gone to the White House for the past two years to join Biden — whose ancestors hail from Co Louth — to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. “He met us at the front door and we toured every room in the place for an hour and a half,” Kearney says. Then we went back to the Oval Office for a 90-minute conversation. He wanted to talk about Ireland.
He is madly attached to Ireland. Irish people take a little American p**s when we meet them and say, “Yeah, I’m Irish,” but they crave the perfect idea of where their people come from. He (Biden) has always been from Ireland, so they have a deep connection to the country and he (Biden) is no different. Ireland is very fortunate that he is the President of America, and we get many tremendous benefits from it.
Patrick’s Day party at the White House this year, Niall Horan – from One Direction – provided the musical entertainment. Last year they had Irish dancers and a fiddler. “There are a lot of green bowls and shamrocks everywhere,” says Kearney. The White House is an amazing place, steeped in history and heritage. You have to go through four rounds of the Secret Service just to get into the building. It’s a bit strange to know where the toilets are now!
But it wasn’t until his trip to Ireland this year that the access I was getting was surreal. I was thinking, ‘I only met this guy six years ago, and now I’m in the motorcade following his big car from place to place – the most protected guy in the world.’ I was asked if I wanted to take one of the Air Force helicopters from Dublin to Dundalk, which was where I was going. It’s crazy, but I don’t apologize for it!
Biden played a little rugby in his youth and staunchly supported his heritage country, especially when they got the most prized scalps of the bunch.
“When we beat the All Blacks in Chicago in 2016, he called me that evening,” Kearney says. “When we beat them in 2018, I got a call from him too. He seemed particularly involved when Ireland beat the All Blacks.”
He is confident that Leinster can earn a fifth star on their shirts by beating La Rochelle
He also knows the name used by the New Zealand senior team, despite a slip of the tongue during his recent visit to the Irish state, when Biden was slandered for referring to them as Black and Tans on one occasion.
Kearney offered a strong defence, saying, ‘I was talking to him about 10 minutes before that and he said all black several times. It was obvious that everyone in the room knew what he meant.
Such is the affinity in Ireland for Kearney’s association with the president that he has had to brush off questions about following Biden on politics. The answer is difficult. He’s busy enough, with TV and business. He and his wife, Jess, have a baby on the way this summer, too.
He will be on the field today confident Leinster can earn a fifth star on their shirts by winning the Champions Cup again, on the understanding that home advantage should provide a slight advantage.
The home side have a starting line-up that includes the majority of Irish Grand Slam winners, but Kearney also paid tribute to the Englishman who was a key figure in the last golden age.
“Stuart Lancaster was great,” he says. He’s developed players at a rate I’m not sure many others can.
When he joined, the senior Leinster players were well aware of how good he was as a manager, and it was very clear that he had somewhat of a meltdown (when he was sacked as England coach, after the 2015 World Cup). We felt as if we had struck gold.
Andy Farrell’s Ireland are ranked number one in the World Rugby Rankings ahead of this year’s World Cup
Lancaster is determined to win the club’s final award before leaving for Racing 92 this summer. He’s not the only ex-England coach to have helmed Irish success. The Test team are number one in the world rankings ahead of this year’s World Cup, after winning the Slam this year and the series in New Zealand last year under Andy Farrell.
Kearney knows about Farrell’s “gift” for motivating players. ‘In 2018, our Grand Slam match against England was the first time I heard him talk about Owen (his son and England captain),’ he says. He’s been with us for a number of years, he was our defensive coach and Owen was clearly the star of the opposition team, but he never singled him out or singled him out.
“But a few hours before kickoff that day, he singled him out and everyone was like, ‘Okay, this guy is serious today. He’s on”. That was just one example, but to be honest, there have been countless moments when I thought, “I’ve been running through a wall for this guy.”
For Kearney himself, after a career full of titles, medals and trophies, the days of running through walls are over. He is now a paid observer and a busy businessman.
And given his wonderful family connection, there’s no need to run through walls. The doors of some of the most protected places on earth are open to him.