Rob Kearney will never forget the summer of 2009.
Selected for his first British & Irish Lions Tour, the Ireland full-back travelled to South Africa as second choice for the No.15 jersey behind in-form Welshman Lee Byrne.
But from the moment he made his Test bow off the bench in the 37th minute of the series opening 26-21 defeat, Kearney was near flawless as he earned a starting berth for the second Test.
What happened next in Pretoria is now etched in Lions legend as Kearney delivered one of the all-time greatest individual performances in the tourists’ long and illustrious history.
Not only did Kearney score the Lions’ only try of the game, he produced an aerial masterclass in which he hardly put a foot wrong – as close to a perfect game as you can get.
While it ended in a heart-breaking 28-25 defeat, the Leinsterman continued his superb form a week later and ensured the Lions finished the Tour on a high with a famous 28-9 triumph.
Kearney toured again with the Lions in 2013 and was part of a series victory in Australia, but it is those two-and-half weeks four years earlier that he looks back on most fondly.
And in the latest entry in our new First, Last & Best series, Ireland’s most decorated rugby player picks out some of his favourite memories from his two Tours with the Lions.
First, Last & Best: Scott Hastings
FIRST: 20 JUNE 2009 – SOUTH AFRICA 26-21 BRITISH & IRISH LIONS, DURBAN
“I went over there as the number two full-back to Lee Byrne who was having a superb season for Wales that year. I got a few opportunities but I didn’t play a huge amount before the first Test.
“I got injured a couple of weeks before it and I suppose in some respects I was quite lucky to have been named on the bench for that first Test and I got my opportunity at the end of the first half.
“From that moment on, for the next two-and-half weeks, it’s that one period in my career that I often really struggle to talk about because everything just went so well for me.
“We’d gotten off to such a poor start in the first half and we clawed our way back in the second half and we did have opportunities to go and win the game.
“I think we felt as if we let the opportunity slip in that first Test but we were also really energised as we knew that after that game we would be much better in the following week.
“A lot of people in the changing room probably felt that they just wanted to get back on the field and go again. Individually, you’re delighted that you’ve made your Test debut.
“It’s a huge honour and a huge achievement to get on a Lions Tour but I think there’s something really special about becoming a Test Lion and it’s a badge you carry around with you forever.”
Battle of Pretoria masterclass
“Of course the second Test was, for me, one of the greatest games of rugby I’ve ever played but it is still a team game and a team sport and we lost the series on that day.
“There was definitely an element of, I was fully in my flow. There’s times when that happens in your career and you don’t fully understand why because if you did, you would try to replicate it every week.
“It just felt when I was on the field that I couldn’t do anything wrong.
“Unfortunately there’s only a few times in my career when that did happen but that was definitely one day in my career where I really felt, ‘You are close to playing your perfect game of rugby’.
“When I went over for that try in the sixth minute I was mostly just in shock that it had happened as the week before had all happened so quickly and all of a sudden you’re a Test try-scorer.
Adam Jones: The day I tamed the Beast
“It was incredible. My dad and my brother had just flown in the day before and they were sitting in the corner where I scored the try and you just remember little things like that.
“It was definitely one of ‘those games’ and when the first ten minutes are as positive and going as well as they were going for me you’re just in your flow.
“Thankfully for me, one of my – if not my biggest – strengths was my ability in the air and the South Africans kept kicking the ball to me and every time I saw the ball go up I licked my lips.”
LAST: 29 JUNE 2013 – MELBOURNE REBELS 0-35 BRITISH & IRISH LIONS, MELBOURNE
“It was definitely another ambition to go and Tour again in 2013, I was still in my 20s so I was still relatively young but Ireland’s form at the time hadn’t been that great.
“I think we finished third or fourth in the Six Nations that year and generally where you finish in the Six Nations determines how many players from your country will be selected.
“To go on that Tour was amazing and I think the fact that I had tasted Test rugby in 2009 and not in 2013 probably made the Tour a little bit more unenjoyable, personally.
“But you’re still a part of a Test-winning series and that was incredible at the same time.
“I was really excited going on that Tour but unfortunately [Leinster] were playing the Rabo Direct PRO12 final the week before departure and I pulled out in the warm-up with a hamstring strain.
“It sort of recurred and bubbled along for the first two or three weeks of the Tour so I was very much on the back foot on that Tour, I didn’t play a huge amount of rugby.
“At the same time Leigh Halfpenny was performing really well, he was number one goal-kicker and it was always going to be a tall order to shift him out of that position given the form he was in.
“It’s definitely frustrating when you don’t go on Tour putting your best foot forward and I missed out on those important games for the first few weeks and you’re chasing yourself a bit after that.
“To make sure you get into the Test team you have to be involved in those first few weeks and find your form very quickly and that’s exactly what Leigh Halfpenny did.
“The joy after that third Test was amazing and I went on the 2009 Tour and we didn’t win that so to go in 2013 and win a series was incredible, even though I didn’t play in any of the Tests.”
BEST: 4 JULY 2009 – SOUTH AFRICA 9-28 BRITISH & IRISH LIONS, JOHANNESBURG
“There was pressure on us as a squad to get the result. Now we didn’t win the series but I think we restored a huge amount of pride in the Lions jersey in that third Test.
“There was a definitely a determination to finish the Tour on a high. We went over there and we played lots of really good rugby, we didn’t deserve to leave South Africa with a 3-0 loss.
“We had to shuffle around a lot of players. That second Test, the physicality of it was something I’ve never experienced before and we lost so many bodies.
“There was a huge amount of rejigging players around and I think the most pleasing thing was we went out in that third Test and we still played some really good rugby.
“Everyone was expressing themselves and there wasn’t that element of fear or nervousness about it, we just went out to play a game and play freely and we scored some really good tries.
“It was amazing to finish on a high like that. Sport moves really quickly and we had known the previous week that the series was lost so you get over that pretty quickly.
“We won convincingly on the day and after what had gone previously and the manner in which we lost the second Test, to come away with the win in that third Test was huge.
“It was a childhood dream of mine from the age of five or six I remember watching South Africa 1997 and those videos and being completely obsessed by the aura and what it meant.
“It’s the most incredible rugby team in the world, I truly believe that. It’s a legacy that will go on forever and ever and I just feel very proud and lucky to have been a part of it.”