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Kelleher pushing into Ireland picture with strong start to Leinster season

The 21-year-old has shown his potential in the Champions Cup over the past fortnight.

WITH TWO CHAMPIONS Cup starts now under his belt, the prospect of 21-year-old Leinster hooker Rónan Kelleher being involved in Ireland’s 2020 Six Nations is growing. 

The youngster is clearly still learning the ropes in what is his first full season with the Leinster senior squad, but his potential is obvious.

A superb athlete who stands 6ft tall and weighs in at around 105kg, Kelleher’s acceleration and power have shone for Leinster early on this season as he has claimed the number two shirt in Sean Cronin’s injury-enforced absence.

tempers-flare-between-ronan-kelleher-and-hendrik-roodt Kelleher fronted up to a physical Lyon team last weekend. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Perhaps as impressively, Kelleher is skillful on the ball, with his intuitive passing and offloading skills hinting at the hooker’s days as a centre and wing earlier in his youth. Having moved through the back row, the former St Michael’s College student became a hooker full-time when he was 16.

Impressive performances for the Ireland U20s in 2017 and 2018 underlined that Leinster had a real prospect on their hands, though Kelleher has had to deal with injury frustrations in recent seasons.

Fully fit and more durable after an extended pre-season this year, Kelleher is now starting to fulfill his rich potential. He has not been error-free in his seven starts for Leo Cullen’s side, but his dynamism, skill, and energy have been impressive.

He has the Leinster maul to thank for some of his seven tries, but Kelleher offers plenty around the pitch. That the hooker has now stood up to a fiercely physical challenge away to Lyon in the Champions Cup last weekend, having made his European debut versus Benetton in Dublin a week earlier, suggests the 21-year-old could be ready for another step up in 2020.

The likes of Cronin, Niall Scannell, and Rob Herring will all be eyeing up Ireland’s number two shirt with Rory Best now retired, but new head coach Andy Farrell has surely been impressed with Kelleher’s emergence.

“He was very good,” said Leinster boss Cullen of Kelleher’s first two Champions Cup starts. “Rónan is going well, hence he has continued in the team.

“It’s a challenge for young guys coming through because you’re trying to add little things each week and not over-complicate things for him.

“He’s got some good experienced heads around him and he’s got some decent confidence. He got some exposure last year to the team and, again, that’s important.

“You see a couple of guys even this year who have had a little bit of exposure. For Rónan that last two weeks, making his debut against Treviso in Europe off the back of some good performances in the PRO14.

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leinsters-ronan-kelleher Kelleher's dynamism around the pitch has impressed. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“Last week was actually Ports’ [Andrew Porter] first start in Europe in that Treviso game which is one that slipped under the radar. Josh Murphy came off the bench for his European debut against Lyon and that was Max [Deegan]‘s first start. So a couple of guys are picking up those bits of experience at the next level, which will serve us well later in the year.”

Cullen said it’s a matter for Farrell when asked if Kelleher would be ready to step up to Test rugby during the Six Nations, but stressed his happiness that Leinster’s hooking stocks are in good nick even without the injured Cronin.

“It’s the national coaches who make that decision and there’s still plenty of things to take place before the Six Nations,” said Cullen.

“I’d say they’re watching with great interest all the time but he’s definitely someone who’s pushing through under the radar… well he’s not under the radar, he’s very much centre at the moment.

“Sean Cronin has been out injured with that neck since the World Cup, he’s not a million miles away. James Tracy has gone really well for us this year, Bryan Byrne has been a little bit unlucky he hasn’t had as many opportunities. We’re lucky in that position that we’ve got some decent depth there.”

Kelleher is not the only young player to seize an opportunity in Leinster early on this season, with a raft of academy products beginning to break through.

The past two European weekends have been big ones for back row Max Deegan, who came off the bench early against Benetton before making his first European start at number eight away to Lyon.

The 23-year-old is another player who could be of national interest.

leinsters-max-deegan Max Deegan delivered a gritty performance against Lyon. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“Especially when you’re away in France, I think it’s a good test,” said Cullen of Deegan, who was World Rugby U20s Player of the Tournament.

“It was a bit of a dogfight over there, we had to dig in and Max played his part in that. He’s getting better all the time. In Galway, it was a good physical game down there and I thought he was good.

“The game against Treviso, Caelan [Doris] is a little bit unlucky, he gets a bang in the head early but he’s hopefully good to go this week so we’ll see how he comes back in. Max does well off the back of that.

“The competition is good for all of those guys, Josh Murphy has been excellent as well. Guys coming back from the World Cup too, Rhys [Ruddock] and Josh [van der Flier]. Obviously, Jack [Conan] came back injured, Dan Leavy is injured and it is an attritional position, the back row.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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