'To be fair, when he's in that position it's 90% him and 10% the lifter'

Rónan Kelleher was impressive at hooker during Ireland’s superb November Test series.

Rónan Kelleher lifting Peter O'Mahony.
Rónan Kelleher lifting Peter O'Mahony.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

IT WAS A fleeting sideshow in reality but an eye-catching moment nonetheless. The photographers certainly appreciated it.

Peter O’Mahony jumped to gather an Argentina restart with Rónan Kelleher lifting him.

The Munster man tipped all the way beyond the horizontal as he stretched out for the ball, but Kelleher managed to cling onto the top of O’Mahony’s shorts, briefly balanced him on his right shoulder, then gently brought him back down onto his feet.

It clearly took a fair bit of strength from Kelleher but he shrugs it off now.

“To be fair, that’s something Pete is world-class at – going up and fetching those balls off restarts. It’s something he does a lot of work on,” says the 23-year-old Leinster and Ireland hooker, speaking before the start of the Heineken Champions Cup next weekend.

“To be fair, when he’s in that position it’s 90% him and 10% the lifter. He’s very good at getting after that ball and it’s a good thing he caught it!”

As well as keeping team-mates out of harm’s way, Kelleher spent this autumn dishing out a fair bit of pain to opponents. Having been backed by Andy Farrell as Ireland’s starting hooker for all three wins over Japan, New Zealand, and Argentina, Kelleher firmly took his chance with a string of excellent performances in the number two shirt.

With Ireland playing an attractive style of rugby in attack, featuring lots of passing from their forwards, Kelleher looked entirely at home.

As well as his 29 carries across Ireland’s three games, Kelleher made 15 passes and threw five offloads. That balance was typical of the Irish forwards.

“It has been great, especially in our phase attack, the fact that we’re able to move the ball well and go around teams,” says Kelleher. “We were playing on the front foot a fair bit in November which obviously made things a lot easier but it has been great for us.

ronan-kelleher Kelleher was speaking before the start of the 2021/22 Heineken® Champions Cup next weekend. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It’s something we work on all the time in camp. A lot of it is the coaches encouraging us to play heads up. If there’s space on, they want us to take it. They’re giving us onus to make a decision. That has been really enjoyable and with the backs we have helping you out, they make that decision a lot easier.”

Kelleher was initially an outside back when he started playing rugby as a kid – there were jokes that he should return to the wing after his stunning try out wide for Leinster against Glasgow in October – and then moved to the back row before finally finishing up at hooker.

That multi-position history seems obvious in Kelleher’s skills today, but he places more focus on his multi-sport upbringing. Rugby has long been his number one but he also played basketball, Gaelic football, soccer, and tennis when he was growing up.

“I was never pigeonholed into one sport, I was always encouraged to play as many as possible,” says Kelleher, whose mother has a background in tennis and hockey, while his father played Gaelic football and hurling.

Rugby eventually took over for Kelleher in St Michael’s College – where his father, Tim, is the principal – but he’s firmly of the belief that playing other sports was important.

“Even now, Stuart Lancaster [the Leinster senior coach] has this one clip of Frank Lampard that he shows us a lot and all it is about looking, scanning, seeing space when he’s playing for Chelsea. He’s constantly moving his head,” says Kelleher by way of pointing out how beneficial other sports can be.

If Kelleher wasn’t playing rugby today, what would his main sport be?

“Golf… but it’s soul-destroying enough. I’d advise not starting!” 

Whatever about the handling skills and his ability to beat defenders with pace and agility, Kelleher is also very happy to be direct on the rugby pitch. 

He gained 96 metres for Ireland with ball in hand over the November series, breaking four tackles and producing a linebreak along the way.

“We’re aware that sometimes we’re going to have to put the head down and run into a brick wall and make sure we come out on top,” says Kelleher.

“You need your forwards to be able to do those hard yards and try to get front-foot ball.

“A lot of it is around the breakdown too, and those two support players making sure that it’s a clean breakdown with quick ball and that allows us to get speed into the next passage of play.”

caelan-doris-celebrates-after-scoring-a-try-with-ronan-kelleher Kelleher celebrates with Caelan Doris. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

The breakdown is one area where Paul O’Connell has made an impact with Ireland. The former Munster lock was added to Farrell’s staff as forwards coach at the start of this year and the positive results have been clear out on the pitch.

Behind the scenes, O’Connell has made a big impression.

“His attention to detail is pretty incredible around the breakdown and lineout,” says Kelleher.

“He picks up all these small little details. Because he’s so detailed-focused, it keeps you accountable. It makes secure everyone is on the ball all the time going into a breakdown or in the lineout.

“Lineout-wise, he has been brilliant around little things like the body position of the jumpers – maybe as opposed to being square-on, they’re at 45 degrees to just give them a split second in terms of their ability to change direction or start a movement.”

Ireland’s lineout and maul were important in their strong results last month, with Kelleher enjoying a good showing out of touch.

Lineout throwing is always an area of the game where younger hookers have to learn quickly and Kelleher is no different.

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However, as he continues to work hard with Ireland assistant coach John Fogarty and Leinster’s Robin McBryde – both former hookers – Kelleher is content with what he delivered for Ireland in November.

“I’m happy with it at the moment. It’s obviously an area that every hooker focuses on and it’s something that went well over the autumn.

“What helped was just getting more cohesive with the callers and the different personnel in the lineout, as well as continuously working with Robin and Fogs on tweaking my throw. It was a good window for that but, again, there’s still areas we can improve with our launch off the lineout.”

The cohesion factor is a huge one and hookers are sometimes unfairly blamed for lineout malfunctions, but the work Kelleher does on the specific closed skill of throwing the ball is also crucial.

ronan-kelleher-acknowledges-the-fans-after-the-game Kelleher is now back on Leinster duty. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“You’re operating with a ‘little and often’ mantra,” says Kelleher of how much effort goes into improving his throwing.

“You’re trying to get as many reps as possible with a jumping pod because a lot of it is timing, getting your eye in. Then obviously you have to do your own stuff individually for your technique.

“For example, the hookers in Leinster do a session every Wednesday or Thursday where it’s just us and Robin, throwing our throws and making sure we’re consistent with our technique, our approach, and our process.

“It’s about just getting reps really. With the lineout, what helps a lot is if we have a say in the design of the lineout which Dev Toner, Ross Molony, and JR [James Ryan] are really good with. We can bounce ideas and then in Ireland it’s the same thing.”

Kelleher is part of the hooker group in Leinster along with fellow 23-year-old Dan Sheehan, who won his first two caps off the bench for Ireland last month and made quite an impact.

Leinster also have the experienced Sean Cronin and James Tracy in their senior squad, while Kelleher highlights academy prospects Lee Barron and John McKee as players to watch out for.

With Ireland, Rob Herring was very recently the first-choice hooker and Dave Heffernan of Connacht has also been in the mix. Sheehan has now entered the fray.

“We know it’s a competitive position in Leinster and Ireland,” says Kelleher. “But the camaraderie and bond is strong there, everyone’s trying to help each other.

“It’s all about trying to get the team to win European Cups and the URC. But at the same time, that competition is driving us all as well.”

Ronan Kelleher was speaking before the start of the 2021/22 Heineken® Champions Cup next weekend, which marks the 27th consecutive season Heineken® has been a proud partner of European rugby, and the fifth season of the Heineken® and Rugby Players Ireland partnership.

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Murray Kinsella

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