Nick Kennedy: 'It would have made my Nan happy, but I'm English through and through...'

Nick Kennedy's grandmother is from County Limerick and he was sounded out by Ireland, but, the England second-rower tells Chris Hewett, he has no doubts whose side he will be on in Dublin this evening
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The Independent Online

What is it with these people who are happy to play their club rugby at London Irish, but would rather not play international rugby for Ireland? Shane Geraghty is one. With a father from Co Mayo and a mother with an Irish ancestry stretching back as far as the mind's eye can see, the button-bright midfielder might confidently have been expected to pull on the green shirt rather than the white one – especially after receiving a phone call from across the water asking him to do precisely that. But no. He chose England instead. As has Nick Kennedy, his fellow Exile.

Actually, there are differences between the two cases. While Geraghty can barely twitch a muscle without setting Irish blood surging through his veins, Kennedy is only part-emerald. "My grandmother on my father's side is from Co Limerick, but dad is probably the biggest England rugby supporter out there," the 6ft 7in line-out specialist said this week. "As for me, I've always considered myself English through and through. Eddie O'Sullivan [the long-serving Ireland coach who left the job a little over a year ago] phoned me on my mobile just before I won my first England 'A' cap and asked me if I was interested in going across. It was nice to get the call, and would have made my Nan happy for sure, but it wasn't for me."

So where does he find himself tonight? At Croke Park, the great cathedral of Gaelic sport situated in the northern reaches of Dublin. And who might his direct opponent be? Why, none other than Paul O'Connell of ... Limerick. Born in the very heart of Irish rugby country, it is entirely appropriate that O'Connell should have become the heartbeat of the national team. Together with his fellow Munsterman, the Cork lock Donncha O'Callaghan, he forms one of the most effective boilerhouse partnerships to be found anywhere in the sport: maybe only Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield, the Springbok pairing, have it over them at present. This latest Six Nations outing will be more testing for Kennedy than anything he has yet experienced, including his tangle with the All Blacks before Christmas.

"O'Connell and O'Callaghan? They're the Lions second-rowers, aren't they?" he said. It was not quite clear whether he was looking back to the British Isles tour of New Zealand in 2005, when the Irishmen played together in the Wellington and Auckland Tests and might therefore be described as the incumbents, or whether he was looking ahead to this summer's series in South Africa and assuming they were already nailed on for the big matches.

"I know how good they are, because I've played alongside Bob Casey [of Co Kildare] at London Irish for a long time now and I know how good he is. If Bob can't get past them, despite playing as well as he does every week, it says something about the quality of rival he's up against. O'Connell is an outstanding, all-round lock and I have a lot of respect for him: he's athletic, he's strong in the set pieces, he gets around the field and he's aggressive in everything he does." Not dissimilar to a certain Martin Osborne Johnson, then. "I think O'Connell carries the ball a little more than I remember Martin carrying it," Kennedy replied, taking his life in his hands.

Kennedy toured New Zealand last summer without winning a cap. Tom Palmer of Wasps was first pick for both Tests, with Ben Kay, a World Cup-winning veteran, on the bench. The pecking order has changed since then. Kay is no longer a member of the elite squad, although he occasionally surfaces in training when others are struggling for fitness, while Palmer has been incapacitated for weeks with a serious shoulder condition. On the face of it, the latter will pose a threat to Kennedy when he gets himself back on the field. There again, he is off to Stade Français, the Parisian club, at the end of the season, and as Johnson, the enforcer turned manager, indicated this week, out of sight may very well mean out of mind.

If the newcomer has not quite made the shirt his own since winning a first cap against the Pacific Islanders at Twickenham last November, he has certainly made progress in that direction. Not that he has enjoyed a free ride. Having put a try past the visitors from the South Seas, he was dropped for the following week's meeting with the Wallabies – a rather more challenging fixture that would have told us much more about him, and told Kennedy plenty about himself.

"Yes, I was surprised," he said candidly. "My sense immediately after the game was that I'd played well enough, and the stats bore me out. At the dinner, my family and my girlfriend were asking me about tickets for the Australia match, but I've never been one to count my chickens so I told them: 'Hey, hold on a bit. Let's wait and see what happens'. It was the right thing to say, because sure enough, they left me out. I thought I might be involved against the Springboks in the third game of the series, but I was wrong. More disappointment. Thankfully, I was given another chance against the All Blacks, and that was a big step up from anything I'd experienced previously. All my life, I heard so much about facing the haka. When it actually happened, I couldn't hear a word they were saying because the crowd were singing 'Swing Low' at top volume."

With his basketball-honed athleticism, Kennedy has it in him to become one of the world's premier line-out specialists: in last season's Guinness Premiership, he and Casey carried all before them in this key theatre of rugby action.

But his second-row partner at international level is Steve Borthwick, rated by many coaches – in these parts and beyond – as the best line-out strategist in the business. As Borthwick also happens to be the England captain, might Kennedy be vulnerable if Johnson and his coaches suddenly opt for light and shade, rather than light and light?

"It's about building a relationship, and relationship-building takes time," he said. "It's difficult to compare playing alongside Steve with partnering Bob at club level, because I see so much more of Bob. But Steve and I are getting along well, and it's not as if the whole running of the line-out lands in his lap. We have some shared responsibilities. When it's our throw, I have some say in where the ball goes."

He has not had much experience of rugby in Ireland, despite his family connections, but there will be a good deal of interest from his nearest and dearest in this evening's proceedings. "When I played in a London Irish pre-season game over Limerick way," he said, "loads of them came along for a look at me: cousins, great uncles, you name it. They all wanted to shake my hand. I suppose there might be some split loyalties, just this once.

"I can't afford to be thinking about the family, though. If England want to stay in this tournament, we have to beat Ireland. People sometimes forget that this is tournament rugby, that we're involved in a competition – not some development programme geared towards the next World Cup. I've watched Five Nations and Six Nations matches for as long as I can remember, and they're massive things.

"The Irish people certainly see it for what it is: they're thinking in terms of a Grand Slam this season. If we can get a result here, it would be a big move towards winning the title ourselves."

Resident Kennedy: Nick's vital statistics

Age 27

Born 19 August 1981, Southampton

Height 6ft 8in

Weight 17st 11lb

Position Lock

Nickname Kendo

*Club career

2001-

London Irish (137 apps)

*International career

England debut v Pacific Islanders, November 2008

Appearances 4

Points 5 (one try)

*Honours

England Saxons Churchill Cup 2006, 2007

*Scored a try on his international debut in the 39-13 win over the Pacific Islanders on 8 November 2008.

*Graduated from Portsmouth University in 2001, with a 2:1 in Sports Science.

*Dating Hollyoaks and The Bill actress Ali Bastian.

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