Joint-top of the United Rugby Championship, Ulster, with a lengthy injury list, have had to rely heavily on their squad depth to grind out their three bonus-point wins.

When news came through of Leone Nakarawa's transfer falling through in June, fans of the province might have let their heads drop but after a clean sweep start to the season and the signing of Duane Vermeulen, who is due to arrive after November, things are looking up.

For Mick Kearney, the former Connacht, Leinster and Zebre Parma forward, Ulster’s need to reinforce meant another shot at the big time.

He had made 32 appearances over two seasons for the Italians but when that contract finished the 30-year-old had seriously considered packing it in.

It’s not an uncommon tale in the professional ranks, nothing lasts forever and players always talk about being prepared for 'life after rugby'.

Then, a call from former Connacht assistant coach Dan McFarland, now the head honcho at Ulster, persuaded him to go north on a short-term contract.

So how close did the Dubliner come to trading one set of boots for another, namely a good pair of builder’s size 12s?

"When I came back from Italy I’d kind of fallen out of love with the game a small bit," said the lock.

"I just wasn’t enjoying it but I still knew that if I could get my foot in the door in a good environment that I would really I enjoy it again.

"I came home and I said I'm going to keep fit and I basically set a date by the end of September that if nothing had come up at clubs I’d actually be excited about going then I was just going to move on, you know, get away from rugby and do something else.

"I had worked with Dan at Connacht, close to 10 years ago now.

"One person’s misfortune is another person’s luck.

"I wasn’t 100% sure what I was going to do [had the call not come]."

No concrete plans then?

"My family run a building suppliers called Celuplast and there is a side to that called Guardian Building Products that do roofing and extensions, so I was looking at that side of the business.

"I was going to roll up the sleeves. I’d much prefer to have a hands-on approach as opposed to being behind a desk.

"I was putting a bit of a team together in the middle of September; it’s residential housing extensions at the moment.

"You can extend to 40 square metres, keeping 25% of your garden and not need to get planning permission which is such a massive thing.

"So I was on the hunt for a good builder and then thankfully a call came through."

One could say that the building blocks are there for when Kearney (above, left), who made 47 Leinster appearances between 2015 and 2019, does decide to call time on his playing days.

But, having featured in all of Ulster’s game so far, he is determined to keep the dream alive. Next up is the Emirates Lions on Friday night (live on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player).

"Every game is a trial and a chance to impress," says Kearney, who revealed a chat with former Munster, Leinster and Ulster forward Ian Nagle meant the decision to make the move was a "no-brainer."

"If you don’t go out and perform, that’s all it’s going to be, a trial and nothing more.

"If you watch Hard Knocks, the NFL documentary, where they can get a rattle on the door on any given day and you could be gone.

"I’ve tried to have a similar enough mentality to this whole experience and the pressure has made it really enjoyable as well.

"I’ve been settling in really well, it’s been thoroughly enjoyable just to get back into an Irish set-up has been really enjoyable.

"Italy was a brilliant experience from a rugby and a lifestyle and a cultural point of view but I suppose being back around Irish lads and the Irish craic.

"On the flip side of that there is the intensity and the ambition of the actual environment and it’s just fantastic to be a part of that."

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Follow Munster v Connacht (Saturday 7.35pm) via our live blog on RTÉ.ie/sport or the RTÉ News app, or watch live on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player. Watch Ulster v Lions (Friday 7.35pm) on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player.