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Kelleher: Tempo will be key to keeping La Rochelle's big-game players quiet

The Leinster hooker says the province need to have an intensity to their play at the Stade Marcel Deflandre.

Leinster hooker Rónan Kelleher.
Leinster hooker Rónan Kelleher.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

LEINSTER HAVE MADE no secret about how they intend to take the game to La Rochelle on Sunday. 

Play at pace, get on top up front, reach the Champions Cup final.

Scrum coach Robin McBryde hammered home the importance of playing with tempo when speaking to the media on Monday.   

His students have clearly been listening. It doesn’t take long for Rónan Kelleher to highlight the importance of bringing that intensity to the Stade Marcel Deflandre, with the 14-0 advantage surrendered to Exeter in their quarter-final win still fresh in the squad’s memory.

“We can’t give them that head start,” Kelleher says.

“Against Exeter, we gave them that head start and we did very well to get back into the game. We kept to our process and we stuck to our structures. We knew we would get another chance but against La Rochelle, we just really can’t afford to give them that start.

“We need to make sure that we keep the tempo high and really run them around the place.”

ronan-kelleher-is-tackled-by-jonny-gray Kelleher carries against Exeter. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Easier said than done. La Rochelle’s desire to keep the ball alive is well noted – something Ronan O’Gara recently explained in some depth during a pitchside BT Sport interview – but the Top 14 side also possess a powerful pack and a well-organised set-piece.

“It’s going to be a difficult challenge,” Kelleher continues.

“We know how good they are. We have seen their performances in the Top 14 all year and their home record speaks for itself. We are all just really excited to get after it really and take the game to them. We’re really looking forward to getting into the physical battle with them.

“A lot of lads are very good in that area, especially Josh (van der Flier) with the poach. Then the physicality that Rhys (Ruddock) and Jack Conan bring and JR (James Ryan), so a lot of lads throughout the group will look to get after La Rochelle and really stop their big ball carriers getting that momentum. Hopefully I’ll be one of them as well, please God.

They have a lot of big-game players as well, a lot of talent and experience there. I suppose our job is going to be to try and make those players look ordinary, but we have to be really switched on in our detail and make sure our defensive structures are in place to make that happen because they have a lot of seriously talented players throughout their team.”

Kelleher himself has grown into an increasingly important member of Leo Cullen’s squad.

Last season, he was dropped for the province’s Champions Cup quarter-final defeat to Saracens. Since then he’s started most of their major fixtures, including the December Champions Cup victory over Northampton, the Pro14 final defeat of Munster and that comeback win against Exeter earlier this month.

Some promising cameos for Ireland also showcased what he can offer as an explosive bench option, leading to some suggestions he could be a surprise inclusion in Warren Gatland’s Lions squad, due to be announced next Thursday (6 May), with former Ireland hooker Rory Best the latest to talk up the 23-year-old’s chances.

“It’s something that every young player in the four nations would dream of but if you look at the competition for places our squad it would be pretty silly to look ahead to the Lions when you are scrapping for your place week in and week out here,” Kelleher says.

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“We have top-quality players here in JT (James Tracy), Nugget (Sean Cronin) and Dan Sheehan. The focus has to be on Leinster week in and week out so the coaches at Leinster still pick me.

“It would be incredible if it somehow managed to materialise. A dream come true, as it would be for any player coming through the four nations, but there is a lot of rugby to be played between now and the Lions tour.

“We still have to win a Champions Cup so that is the main focus at the minute, and then onto the Rainbow (Cup).”

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Ciarán Kennedy

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