CONOR KEARNS WILL drop the odd picture of his current location into some WhatsApp groups and the reaction from friends is inevitable.   

“There’s a little bit of resentment coming back through the messages but some of the guys are planning some trips out here,” he says with a laugh.

“It’s not a bad place to come and visit.”

This is his second season with Major League Rugby side San Diego Legion and despite an opening weekend defeat to new boys Rugby United NY, the team hope to build on an impressive inaugural campaign where they reached the play-off semi-finals and narrowly lost to eventual champions Seattle Seawolves.

Both New York and Toronto have been added to the league this term and the 2019 season will run from January through to early June. More positive steps.   

“With MLR and the great run of form the national team have been on recently, it’s attracted a lot of attention here,” the fullback says. 

“It’s exciting to see how far it’s come and how much further it will go. MLR is here to stay and there are some great programmes being built around the country. I can’t speak for the other cities but you’d have to think there’s a similar interest around the various pro sides. It’s only growing and the World Cup will be a fantastic showcase of how much popularity the sport has garnered over the last couple of years here.”

Kearns has been pulled in a few different directions in the last while and is enjoying some much-needed stability on the west coast. After schools rugby at Glenstall, he went to Trinity and studied for a degree in Molecular Medicine and Immunology while simultaneously helping the rugby side finally reach the top tier of the AIL in 2016 after getting so close the previous year. From there, it was off to Oxford for a Masters in Pharmacology.   

Kearns holds firm while playing for Trinity in 2016. Source: Morgan Treacy; ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“I thought there was no harm in giving an application a go but I wasn’t expecting much, to be honest,” he says. 

“I got a call to play for Munster ‘A’ against the Ireland Under-20s on a Thursday back in April 2016. But a day later, I found out that my interview with Oxford was going to be on the Friday. So, I got the train down, played the game, got the train straight back up and had the interview the following morning. It was a hectic few days but it all turned out okay in the end.”

“I felt I’d go over for a year. People speak so highly of the experience and a lot of Irish guys throughout history have played in the Varsity match against Cambridge so I thought I’d go for it. I was injured for a large part of that year so I didn’t get to experience as much as I could have and we lost to Cambridge, unfortunately. That game is the centre-piece, the be-all and end-all. You have 12 weeks, a few friendlies in the lead-up and then it’s just all out for that one game. From an external point of view, the success of the season is determined by that fixture. But, I managed to get into some decent research in my first year and was selected as captain for the following season. So, I was like, ‘Okay, here we go. We’ll go for one more year’. So, it was an incredible experience. An incredible trip away to the States on tour, we managed to beat Trinity in England which was fantastic but then we lost the Varsity match again, which was a real tough day after what we felt was a really positive build-up.”

The weight of academia has been tough at times but Kearns feels that his optimum performances came when he was under pressure with his studies.  

“If I’m really honest, my experience is that you’re playing your best rugby when you’re most busy,” he says. 

Kearns plan was to finish up his studies in August 2018 and see where he was then, whether back in the AIL or starting out with some bio-tech firm. But then, through a friend, he got a call. The San Diego Legion were down some players because of junior internationals and were wondering if he could fill a gap for a few weeks. Kearns got the all-clear from his Oxford supervisor, dusted off his trusty American passport and made his debut on 10th June in a 39-22 win over New Orleans.      

Kearns celebrates a try for Trinity against Ballymena in the 2016 play-off semi-final. Source: Tommy Dickson; ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“The American passport, in some respects, is like a golden ticket,” he admits. 

“You come to California and they say ‘Welcome home’ to you on the way in. My parents lived in San Francisco for about nine years and me and my sister were born there. But then they moved back to Limerick after that, I grew up playing with Old Crescent and then it was off to Glenstall. My parents are from Dublin so they moved back up there when I went to Trinity and were all based there together for those five years.”

After his performances in Major League Rugby, Kearns was called into the USA Men’s Selects squad for a Pacific Challenge tour to Uruguay in October of last year. Effectively, it’s a reserve side and he wasn’t the only Irish player to be invited. Both Tahdg Leader and Pat O’Toole, then also with San Diego, were called up for the games against Tonga A, Canada A, Samoa A, Argentina and the hosts.   

“It was tough at times but there were some great guys there,” he says. 

“You meet some of the most fantastic people through the whole process and that’s been the essence of the last few years, I guess. You meet all of these different guys and everyone has their own story. Being part of things like that is really special.”

It wasn’t the first time Kearns had pulled on a US jersey. He played for the Under-20 Junior All-Americans at the 2013 World Cup. And, he was also part of the Collegiate All-Americans on their tour to Australia in 2016. But, he played with Munster at Under-19 and Under-20 level, he also was called into their Development squad and represented Ireland Universities too.

Kearns in action for Ireland Universities in 2016. Source: Donall Farmer; ©INPHO/Donall Farmer/INPHO

Another example of the complexities of identity.  

“Every Irish rugby player grows up with dreams of playing for Ireland and the Lions,” he says. 

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“But if that’s not going to happen or if another opportunity presents itself…” he continues before tailing off.  

“When you’re born abroad, you always feel as if you have something different about yourself. There’s a great history of Irish guys with ties to America and them playing for the team. And seeing the possibility of playing at an international level, it’s really exciting. Thinking you’re capable of doing that…and I’m not saying you lose your identity as an Irish person, it’s just that you’re definitely an American too. And I’m sure the guys that have done so in recent times would say the same thing.”    

Kearns is excited by the possibilities but is reluctant to get too far ahead of himself. Anyway, he still doesn’t have much time to ponder on hypotheticals. There are still some corrections that he’s working on for his Oxford thesis and some part-time work with a bio-tech in the city. And there’s the small matter of Saturday’s clash with the reigning MLR champions too. 

Kearns wearing the blue of Oxford during his time at the fabled university.

“Academically, for all intents and purposes, I’ve hit the pause button for a little bit,” he says. 

“To be involved in a working environment where I can still use my science and some of the other stuff I’ve learned over the last few years is great as well, just to keep that side ticking over. But the main focus is rugby for the next while and then we’ll see what happens.  

We have a really fantastic setup. It’s a beautiful place to live and to be able to play rugby professionally is incredible. To get some relief from a regular humdrum day in the lab is nice. We’re incredibly privileged to be able to do this over here and I’m really excited for the next few months.” 

Join us to preview the Six Nations with Simon Zebo, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey on Thursday @7pm in Liberty Hall Theatre Dublin.