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'He's like a big South African. He's got that bulk that you don't really see in Irish kids'

Dan Sheehan had to fight hard for his breakthrough but he’s now standing out for Ireland.

Dan Sheehan

DAN SHEEHAN IS one of those rugby players who makes people sit up and take notice.

For starters, there’s simply the sight of him. At 6ft 3ins tall, he is not your traditional hooker. In eras past, those wearing the number two shirt were often short and squat.

Sheehan – who is set for his first Ireland start in tomorrow’s Six Nations clash with Italy – looks more like a back row. He’s a big man, weighing in at over 11okg. So he’s a different proposition given his size.

“He’s like a big South African,” says Tony Smeeth, who coached Sheehan during his two seasons in the All-Ireland League with Trinity.

“He’s got that natural bulk that you don’t really see in Irish kids. It’s very rare here.”

Though he has always been a hooker, 23-year-old Sheehan plays like a back row around the pitch, with his combination of direct blunt force in the carry, footwork, aggression in the tackle, and smooth handling skills.

His acceleration and agility are startling at times. Again, it’s not something you say about all hookers. Sheehan’s try-saving tackle on France fullback Melvyn Jaminet two weekends ago in Paris was a fine example, as he covered across at high speed to prevent the score.

“He is very explosive,” says Dave Fagan, the head of strength and conditioning for Leinster’s sub-academy.

“We do counter-movement jumps during our testing and even at U20s level, Dan would have been up there with all the backs he was that explosive.

“Back in the day, a hooker’s CMJ might have been in the mid-30s [centimetres] and Dan was doing mid-50s when he was still U20s.”

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You can take your pick of the moments Sheehan has had people out of their seats over the last two seasons.

Battering over for two tries on his Leinster debut just 16 months ago. Smashing Japanese forwards on first Ireland cap back in November. Sidestepping Mack Hansen in remarkable fashion against Connacht last December. Looking very much at home at Stade de France a fortnight ago. His upward trajectory is irresistible. 

And the funny thing is that Sheehan was never mapped out as a future star. People didn’t always sit up and take notice.

daniel-sheehan Sheehan playing for Clongowes in 2016. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

He does come from a rugby family, with his late grandfather, Denis Shaw, having played for Leinster in the 195os. Sheehan’s father, Barry, was a second row for Old Belvedere and UCD. 

Dan first played rugby with the minis in Bective Rangers before his dad’s work brought the family to Romania when Dan was 10. Living in Bucharest for three years, he and his younger brother, Bobby – now a hooker for UCD and even taller than Dan – spent plenty of time throwing a rugby ball around.

When they returned home, Dan took up rugby in secondary school at Clongowes Wood College. He was good but he wasn’t a big name. Sheehan did have some involvement with the Leinster U19s and his athleticism made him worth keeping an eye on.

He came out of school and joined Trinity as he started studying at DIT. Smeeth, Trinity’s director of rugby, realised they had a real talent on their hands.

“He was just a natural rugby player,” says Smeeth. “He was fast and his skills were good.”

It wasn’t just the stuff around the pitch that caught the eye. Trinity’s long-serving forwards coach, Hugh Maguire, was impressed too.

“I remember Hugh coming over to me and saying, ‘He has the best throw I’ve ever seen,’” recalls Smeeth.

“And Hugh has been coaching in the AIL since its inception and he’s had very good hookers over the years. Dan is an awesome thrower, he can really thread the ball.”

Though first-year players don’t generally feature straight away in the All-Ireland League for Trinity, Sheehan was soon featuring for the senior team, sometimes even playing for the college’s U20 team the day after coming off the bench in the AIL.

Sheehan was in the Leinster sub-academy fold at this stage, but it was tough for him to get ahead. 

His current provincial and international team-mate Rónan Kelleher was already in the full Leinster academy, while Eoghan Clarke was seen as the next hooker in line. The pathway looked blocked but Sheehan has what Fagan calls ‘workability.’

dan-sheehan Sheehan has played AIL rugby for Trinity and Lansdowne. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Other guys were ahead of him but he just kept in, kept training, kept working away,” says Fagan, a very influential figure behind the scenes in Leinster who will celebrate 25 years of dedicated, high-quality service this May.

“I remember Dan playing J1s for Tony in Trinity at one stage when he was still U20. He would play anywhere and do anything he had to do. He was a good kid and he definitely had the raw materials. He was powerful, strong, and fit. That’s not a bad start.”

Sheehan missed out on the Ireland U20s squad for the 2018 Six Nations, with Kelleher, Clarke, and Munster’s Diarmuid Barron ahead of him. He did, however, make the cut for that summer’s Junior World Championship in France, head coach Noel McNamara bringing him in as back-up to Barron after injuries to Kelleher and Clarke. 

But Sheehan still hadn’t cracked it. Indeed, he feared that Leinster would cut him loose completely that summer of 2018 but having been injured over in France himself, he returned to the province to rehab. 

Sheehan wasn’t for quitting and he benefited from Clarke – now with Jersey Reds in England – turning down a Leinster academy spot to instead join Munster. Sheehan got fit and ended up training with the senior team when they were short on numbers at the start of the 2018/19 season. Still uncontracted, he was at least still in the fight.

“It’s that mental resilience that stood out to me most,” says Fagan. “That resilience is one of the most important things that people from the outside wouldn’t see.

“Some guys aren’t mentally robust or strong enough. Dan was. He had that mental toughness and, in fairness, his brother Bobby has that too. It seems to be a family trait.”

As he continued to impress with Trinity, Sheehan was finally brought into the full Leinster academy towards the end of that ’18/19 season and he was catching attention from other AIL clubs too.

Sheehan’s uncle, Derry Shaw, was set to become Lansdowne FC president for the ’19/20 campaign and he asked then-head coach Mike Ruddock to take a look at his nephew.

“The first thing you see is that standout physical size and power,” says Ruddock, who is now the Ospreys’ development director in Wales but previously worked with many current senior Ireland internationals either in Lansdowne or with the Ireland U20s.

dan-sheehan Sheehan at Leinster training in 2019. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Ruddock is rightly proud to have “put a bit of Gwent into” several of Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad, and he quickly saw that Sheehan had the goods to go to the top.

“Dan looked every inch the future professional player physically.”

Shaw arranged a meeting and Ruddock convinced Sheehan to switch clubs in the summer of 2019.

“In fairness to Trinity, they play great rugby,” says Ruddock. “So Dan had the physicality and the skill level, he was showing up in the wider channels. Tony and the boys had done a great job with him and helping that footballing side of it.

“The sell for us was that he could be part of a pack that was getting on top. We looked to help with some of the darker arts.”

Sheehan’s excellent form continued with Lansdowne, while he had a brilliant breakthrough Celtic Cup campaign for Leinster A in 2019, scoring eight tries in eight games as they won the competition.

That try-scoring touch has become a calling card for Sheehan. At senior level, he has dotted down 13 times in his 21 Leinster appearances so far, while he bagged his first Test try against Argentina in November.

At Lansdowne, Sheehan’s scrummaging continued to be a focus in his thirst for improvement. This had been a concern for some given Sheehan’s unusual height, but Ruddock loved working with him.

“The thing with someone as tall as Dan, if you start to bring your feet too far forward to hook the ball, the scrum is losing 115kg of power driving through the scrum and also you tend to round your back and have that shape that’s not conducive to transferring weight through the scrum.

“The concept that we worked on with Dan was that as the ball was coming in, we would attempt to drive the opposition back first.

“We used to hammer home that notion of ‘drive and strike, drive and strike’ rather than standing still and striking. We’d go at the opposition before they’d go at us.”

With John Fogarty and then Robin McBryde focusing on Sheehan’s set-piece work with Leinster too, he was in good hands. 

Sheehan was already an impressive lineout thrower, but Ruddock was also part of his further progress there.

“A lot of young hookers are like quarterbacks – they can throw the ball three-quarters the length of the field but they don’t always have that softness, the pitching wedge or sand-wedge to just chip it onto the green,” explains Ruddock.

ronan-kelleher-and-dan-sheehan Rónan Kelleher and Sheehan both played under Ruddock in Lansdowne. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“They use the drive all the time and don’t maybe use the pitching wedge to put a little bit of height on it to drop it on the green.”

So there was detailed work with Sheehan and Lansdowne’s other hookers throwing on their knees, lofting the ball with finesse over the crossbar of the posts to each other.

“You’re looking to drop the ball in what is almost an upside-down U shape, if that makes sense,” explains Ruddock.

“That’s more difficult to defend for the defensive lineout rather than just the flatter throws where if someone gets up in front of you, they can cut that out.”

The pandemic slowed everyone up in March 2020 but Leinster had seen enough from Sheehan to move him onto a senior contract that summer and his debut came a few months later with those two tries against Zebre.

These days, everyone is getting to see the skills that the likes of Smeeth spotted early on.

“He picks lines, he glides onto the ball and is just a tremendous natural player,” says the Trinity boss.

“He’s got burst and he can barrel over guys. He has a massive chest and he can bump you off. Or he can step you. It’s tough because you don’t know what he’s going to do to do.

“That time he stepped Mack Hansen, you could see Hansen was bracing himself for the big hit and… bang, Dan just stepped him. That was incredible. That’s the ability he has.”

Ruddock is not surprised to see Sheehan excelling with Ireland.

What he loves most is that desire the hooker has to keep adding strings to his bow.

“He’s bloody good at scoring tries, he’s bloody good at carrying the ball, and he has great footwork and acceleration for a big guy.

“In Lansdowne, he just wanted to get into the darker arts a bit more and was keen to learn all of that.”

irelands-dan-sheehan-and-andrew-conway Sheehan did well off the bench in Paris last time out. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Sheehan’s start for Ireland tomorrow comes after an injury to Kelleher, who he looks set to battle with for years to come.

Munster showed strong interest in Sheehan ahead of next season but he looks set to stay put in Leinster.

The big man at hooker is only really getting started.

“He doesn’t fit with the traditional view of a hooker,” says Fagan. “He and Rónan are like the new breed of hooker. They’re stronger and more explosive. Not all hookers have to have the same traits but that is the new breed.

“They have got to be very good around the park, they’ve got to be explosive. Dan has that and he has the mental resilience.”

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Murray Kinsella

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