U20 centre Dan Kelly well-equipped for whirlwind rise

The 18-year-old had pedigree in football, golf and rugby league before joining Noel McNamara’s squad for the Six Nations.

Kelly celebrates the win over England.
Kelly celebrates the win over England.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

THERE ARE A wealth of options available if you are keen on choosing an outstanding moment from Ireland’s U20 year so far, but it’s tough to pick one to rise above Jack Crowley’s opening night try.

It looked good from every angle, but nobody has as good a view of it as Dan Kelly, that’s him with arms aloft in his own 22, inviting Crowley to slingshot around him. And he’s still there running an excellent support line and screaming for the pass while Crowley was applying a robust fend to Scotland fullback Ollie Smith.

“It was a good try to watch unfold, but to go 70 metres and not get the ball was a bit heartbreaking,” jokes Kelly, taking a break from his busy schedule to chat with The42.

Obviously, the centre carries no actual ill will for the eye-catching 10, saying he has ‘looked after’ him during the squad’s non-training days in Cork as the Crowley family have given him bed and board.

Hastily-arranged accommodation plans were necessary for the powerful Manchester-born centre because these past two months have been nothing short of a whirlwind. 

A product of Kirkham Grammar school and the Sale Sharks academy, Ireland’s IQ Rugby recruitment wing were aware of Kelly. But still six months shy of his 19th birthday, he was called up to train with a national age-grade side for the first time in early January.

Three weeks later, he was adding his imposing six-foot frame to Ireland’s powerful midfield and pleading for passes from Crowley.

“I didn’t have much time to learn plays, but everyone welcomed me with open arms. The lads have been class,” says Kelly.

“That obviously helps when everyone’s easy going. Then you get on the park, it’s been class to be there. Just to get selected.”

I’m not just enjoying it, I’ve improved by being coached by really good coaches and playing with really talented players. All-round, I’m just really happy I’ve had this opportunity.”

Kelly is the grandson of Dublin émigrés Paul and Elaine Kelly. Naturally, living in northern England tilted his father, Dan Snr, towards rugby league and he excelled in his youth, making the U21 grade with Great Britain before injury issues stalled his progress.

Dan Jnr has turned his talents across many sports. He was reared on the 13-man code and was for a time on the books with Burnley FC. He’s handy with the small, dimpled ball too. 

“I played rugby league quite a lot. That obviously helped. I played a serious amount of golf. At one point it was my first sport. At 16 or 17 I was playing a lot more golf than rugby. I played a lot of competitions all over the UK…”

Playing, and winning a few along the way, but as we progressed the path to professional ranks in that sport looked all the more precarious. During his free time around Cork, he got a glimpse of the Old Head of Kinsale course. His busy schedule hasn’t quite allowed him wedge a good round in between cross-channel flights, intensive training and his ongoing studies.

Now 18, Kelly has let his clubs gather dust over the winter while balancing rugby and his course in business finance and economics at Loughborough University.

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“It’s going well, just have to get my head back down after being away for camp,” he says after training camp in Ireland ran on for an extra day this week with no Italian match to prepare for.

“It’s not a bad thing to have to do, just flying back from an Ireland camp. It’s what you want to do, you just have to get your head in those books as soon as you get back.”

dan-kelly-jack-crowley-and-david-mccann Kelly breaks against Wales with captain David McCann and Jack Crowley in support. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Outside of the clear delight of matchdays, among the highlights of the U20 experience for players is the chance to train against their senior counterparts. By all accounts, their firrst meeting in Cork ahead of the England clashes lacked some of the metaphorical punch of previous clashes. The open session in Donnybrook last week brought some of the feisty nature of players back out.

“It was a great experience training against them, they pumped us a bit. Taught us a few lessons actually.

You know how it is. You say it’s only shoulder on and then a shot goes in and it ends up getting a bit out of hand. (It was) pretty much full on,  it was interesting when the likes of Peter O’Mahony are trying to take your head off.”

Evidently, Andy Farrell’s senior side had frustrations to work out. And it’s no harm for the U20s to be grounded a little after the dizzying heights reached in their demolition of England.

For obvious reasons that result was a sweet one for Kelly. And for a not-so-obvious one too.

“The fullback for England (Freddie Steward) actually lives in the same flat as me.  All the way leading up he had been giving me grief, mind games.

“It was good to let rugby do the talking for us as a team. They weren’t ready for us. These last few weeks have been good.”

dan-kelly Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Better than good. Kelly has been the consistent element in Ireland’s dynamic and powerful midfield. He scored his first try in green in the win over Wales in Cork, with his proud grandfather watching from the stands.

Had Covid-19 not come along to postpone Italy’s remaining fixtures, Kelly may have been celebrating a title win last night to go along with the Triple Crown secured in Northampton. We can wait a week before considering the possibility of a Grand Slam whenever the postponed matches are re-fixed, but the title is now possible when they face France in Perpignan this Friday.

A seriously tough assignment, but the way this side attack with boundless intent and venom, the way they consistently appear utterly uncaring for what most consider daunting tasks, only the foolish would put it past them.

“It’s a credit to (coaches) they say just play what you see,” says Kelly.

“They give us a structure and then we can go and back ourselves, play how we normally play.

“It’s good when you get handed that as a team, coaches say just go and do what you’re good at. It’s been really enjoyable playing the sort of rugby we’ve played.”

The kind of rugby when passing options always seem to be available.

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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