Ireland icon Kearney on his Biden connection and Leinster cup hopes

‘Thanks to my cousin, Joe Biden, I know where the White House toilets are – it’s weird!’: Ireland legend Rob Kearney on swapping the oval ball for Oval Office, Leinster’s Champions Cup hopes and why Andy Farrell is special

  • The former Leinster and Ireland full-back is a cousin of the US President
  • Kearney and his parents recently joined Biden for St Patrick’s Day celebrations 
  • He is confident Leinster can claim a fifth European title by beating La Rochelle

Rob Kearney is used to exalted company and grand surroundings. Having played in four European Cup finals for Leinster, the former Ireland full-back is now forging closer ties with his powerful cousin…Joe Biden.

The 37-year-old has swapped the oval ball for the Oval Office. He is embracing a ‘surreal’ shift from sporting acclaim to being feted by the President of the United States, and welcomed into his top-security inner sanctum.

In the build-up to Saturday’s Champions Cup final at the Aviva Stadium between Leinster and La Rochelle, Kearney — who will be on punditry duty — explains to Mail Sport how he came to discover he was so well connected.

‘It was 2016, he was vice-President of America and was coming over to Ireland for a five-day trip,’ he says. ‘The Taoiseach — the Prime Minister of Ireland — called me and said, “Joe Biden is coming over” and I was thinking, “I think he’s the vice-president of America”, but I wasn’t hugely into American politics at the time.

‘But then Enda Kenny said to me, “We’ve gone back through his family history, and realised that you are fifth cousins with him. We are having a lunch for him next week and would you like to come?”. So myself and (brother) Dave went along. We met him and he was a gentleman.

Ireland legend Rob Kearney (pictured) has swapped the oval ball for the Oval Office

The former Ireland full-back greets US President Joe Biden (right) in the White House in March

‘He said to us, “Our Irish family have been amazing to us, why don’t you guys come to America and we’ll repay the favour?”. So, Dave and I hopped on a plane a few weeks later and we were in the White House.’

Having become acquainted, the distant family bonds have been nurtured and reinforced. Kearney and his parents have been to the White House for the last two years to join Biden — whose ancestors come from Co Louth — for St Patrick’s Day celebrations. ‘He met us at the front door and we had a tour of every room in the place for an hour and a half with him,’ Kearney says. ‘Then we went back to the Oval Office for a 90-minute chat. He wanted to talk about Ireland.

‘He feels insanely connected to Ireland. Irish people take the p**s out of Americans a little bit when we meet them and they say, “Yeah, I’m Irish”, but they yearn for that idealistic notion of where their people come from. Invariably, it is from Ireland, so they have a deep connection with the country and he (Biden) is no different. Ireland is very lucky that he is President of America, we get so many enormous benefits from it.’

At this year’s St Patrick’s Day party at the White House, Niall Horan — from One Direction — provided the musical entertainment. Last year, they had Irish dancers and a violinist. ‘There’s a lot of green and shamrock bowls all around the place,’ says Kearney. ‘The White House is an incredible place, steeped with history and heritage. You have to go through four rounds of Secret Service just to get into the building. It is a little weird that I know where the toilets are now!

‘But it wasn’t really until his trip over to Ireland this year that the access that I was getting became 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 man in the world”. I was asked if I wanted to go on one of the Air Force helicopters from Dublin down to Dundalk, where he was going to. It’s crazy, but I’m unapologetically on the bandwagon!’

Biden played a bit of rugby in his youth and has keenly supported the country of his heritage, especially when they have claimed the most prized scalp of the lot.

‘When we beat the All Blacks in Chicago in 2016, he phoned me that evening,’ says Kearney. ‘When we beat them in 2018, I got a call from him, too. He seems to be particularly engaged when Ireland beat the All Blacks.’

He is confident that Leinster can earn a fifth star on their shirts with victory over La Rochelle

He also knows the name that New Zealand’s marquee team go by, despite a slip of the tongue during his recent Irish state visit, when Biden was pilloried for referring to them as the Black and Tans at a function.

Kearney offered a staunch defence, saying: ‘I was talking to him about 10 minutes before that and he said All Blacks a couple of times. Everyone in the room very clearly knew what he meant.’

Such is the fascination in Ireland with Kearney’s link to the President, he’s even had to brush off questions about following Biden into politics. The answer is a hard ‘no’. He is busy enough, with TV and business work. He and wife Jess have a baby on the way this summer, too.

He will be pitchside today and is confident that Leinster can earn a fifth star on their shirts by winning the Champions Cup again, on the basis that home advantage should provide a slight edge.

The hosts have a starting XI boasting the majority of Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning team, but Kearney also paid tribute to the Englishman who has been a key figure in their recent golden era.

‘Stuart Lancaster has been superb,’ he says. ‘He’s developed players at a rate I’m not sure many others could achieve.

‘When he joined, the senior Leinster players were very aware of how good a coach he was and it was very evident he had been somewhat shafted (when he was sacked as England head coach, after the 2015 World Cup). We felt as if we had struck gold.’

Andy Farrell’s Ireland are No 1 in the world rugby rankings ahead of this year’s World Cup

Lancaster is hell-bent on taking the ultimate club prize before leaving for Racing 92 this summer. He’s not the only ex-England coach driving Irish success. The Test team are No1 in the rankings ahead of this year’s World Cup, after their Slam this year and series win in New Zealand last year under Andy Farrell.

Kearney knows about Farrell’s ‘gift’ for motivating players. ‘In 2018, our Grand Slam game against England was the first time I heard him speak about Owen (his son and England captain),’ he says. ‘He was with us for a number of years, he was our defence coach and Owen was obviously the star man for the opposition, but he had never referenced him or singled him out.

‘But a few hours before kick-off that day, he singled him out and everyone was like, “Right, this guy is serious today. He’s on”. That was just one example, but to be honest there were countless moments when you thought, “I’d run through a wall for this guy”.’

For Kearney himself, after a decorated career full of titles, medals and awards, the days of running through walls are over. He is now a paid observer and a busy businessman.

And given his remarkable family connection, there is no need to run through walls. The doors of some of the most protected places on earth are open to him.

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