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Dublin: 5 °C Wednesday 27 March, 2019

'I don't think I've hit the potential I have in me at this level yet'

Connacht’s Cian Kelleher is fully fit and eager to show his ability as the new season kicks off.

IT’S MORE THAN three years since Cian Kelleher wore Ireland’s green jersey in a non-capped game against the Barbarians at Thomond Park, but his involvement under Joe Schmidt that day spoke volumes of the potential that he still possesses.

Now heading into his third season with Connacht, Kelleher has had to endure frustration with injuries in recent times but believes he is ready to kick on and show his true ability on a consistent basis.

Connacht's Cian Kelleher Kelleher was in try-scoring form in pre-season. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Having turned 24 earlier this month, the former Leinster man speaks with maturity about his career and he is not dwelling on past achievements or the prospect of fighting his way back into Schmidt’s thoughts.

“It’s every Irish rugby player’s goal but I have to be realistic as well,” says Kelleher. “This year, I just want to get into the Connacht team first and see where it goes from there. The back three in the Ireland squad is so good and so competitive.

“You don’t know what could happen in a year or two but I’m just focusing on getting into the Connacht team and getting better every week, contributing to the team as much as I can.”

Kelleher enjoyed an excellent pre-season – “the first one I haven’t been injured for” – for Connacht, scoring four tries in his three appearances and has been named on the right wing for tomorrow’s Guinness Pro14 opener against Glasgow in Galway.

A full summer of uninterrupted training means Kelleher has confidence in his fitness and durability, and with reports from within Connacht predicting good things for him in 2018/19, the former St Michael’s student is eager to get started.

“I don’t think I’ve hit the potential I have in me at this level yet,” he says. “It’s nice to have that good pre-season under my belt and it’s the most excited I’ve been for a season yet. I know I’m fit and healthy and ready to go for it.

“I want to see how far we can go as a team and I’m glad to be part of it. It’s a new era around the place, with JB [Jarrad Butler] as skip, and it’s exciting.”

Kelleher’s move to Connacht in 2016 was a controversial one at the time, with Leinster expressing discontent at the perceived role the IRFU played in one of their most promising young players moving west.

Cian Kelleher leaves the pitch injured Kelleher has had injury frustrations over the past two seasons. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

But looking back on that time, Kelleher underlines that once he got a call from Pat Lam offering him an opportunity, the decision was his.

“There was probably a bigger deal made out of it at the time than I thought would ever have happened,” says Kelleher, whose younger brother Ronan, a hooker, is now part of Leinster’s academy.

“I had two years in Leinster, as well as the year in the sub-academy, and I had stalled my progress a bit in that last season.

“It was nothing to do with Leinster, I loved my time there and some of the lads are still my best friends but I probably needed a change personally, just because I felt I had a good first few seasons there and stalled.

“I got a call from Pat and it really enticed me to come down.”

Having been welcomed warmly by the squad, Kelleher made a superb start to life in Galway, showing his try-scoring class early in the 2016/17 season, before he was cut down by a hamstring tear in a Champions Cup game against Wasps in December.

So keen to get back onto the pitch, Kelleher admits he rushed his recovery and managed to re-tear the hamstring.

“The physios and S&C staff couldn’t have done more for me, it was myself being naive and a bit stupid, not honest with how I felt,” says Kelleher. “I think I’ve learned a good bit from that and I look after my body a lot more.”

He made it back at the end of that season but then suffered tear in his left quad in the Champions Cup qualification game against Northampton in May 2017.

Ireland’s Cian Kelleher Kelleher in Ireland colours in 2015.

Incredibly, Kelleher was then hit by a tear in his right quad as he returned from the one in his left and his pre-season for the 2017/18 campaign was severely hampered.

Without the fitness base usually built in the summer, he struggled to get back to his athletic best and when he eventually did – hitting form in the second half of the campaign – he was halted by an ankle injury in March, ending his season.

Kelleher opted for surgery in order to fully remedy the syndesmosis issue and he’s pleased he did so, with his recovery timeframe meaning he was fit again to take part in all of Connacht’s pre-season.

Finally, he feels he has built a fitness base that will make him durable over the course of 2018/19.

“I don’t think my body has felt as good since I was 18 or 19, so happy days,” says Kelleher, who has also played plenty of his rugby at fullback.

Kelleher speaks positively about the impact of new head coach Andy Friend, with whom he has quickly struck a strong relationship, and the refreshed culture that Connacht’s players have worked towards this summer.

Tomorrow afternoon against Glasgow, Kelleher forms a dangerous back three with Tiernan O’Halloran and Matt Healy, while the centre pairing of Tom Farrell and new Aussie signing Kyle Godwin should create opportunities.

Cian Kelleher scores a try despite Will Rowlands Kelleher scores a pre-season try against Wasps. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Tom’s unbelievable, his one-handed offloads were top of the charts last season,” says Kelleher. “He releases players so well and I would have played alongside him in Lansdowne. I’m delighted he’s been able to showcase his skills in the Pro14.

“Kyle looks really good too, his distribution is so good and he’s settled in really well, a really nice guy and already popular among the group.”

Kelleher and Connacht know they now need to back up all the positive talk and performances from pre-season with a huge effort in the opening weeks of the season.

“It’s a big month,” says Kelleher. “After Glasgow, we also have Scarlets, Leinster, Zebre and Edinburgh, so it’s tough but we’re just excited to have a go at all the previous champions and see how we fare.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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