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First start for Ireland next on agenda for 22-year-old Leinster man Kelleher
The powerful hooker won his first three caps off the bench earlier this year.

THIS TIME LAST year, Ronan Kelleher was taking his chance to nail down Leinster’s number two shirt. 

With Sean Cronin away for the World Cup with Ireland, Kelleher was superb for his province, making a string of starts that continued even after Cronin’s return from Japan and subsequent recovery from the injury he had suffered over there.

As he retained the number two shirt for Champions Cup games, it was very clear that Kelleher had become Leinster’s first-choice at hooker but in December 2019 he suffered a broken hand that appeared to have stopped his momentum at exactly the wrong time as international honours beckoned.

ronan-kelleher Gary Carr / INPHO Kelleher won his first Ireland caps earlier this year. Gary Carr / INPHO / INPHO

But Kelleher returned to fitness in time for the Six Nations and Ireland boss Andy Farrell had seen enough, with the Leinster front row handed his debut off the bench in the opening win over Scotland, before also featuring as a replacement versus Wales and England.

The 22-year-old more than held his own in those appearances off the bench, delivering more evidence of his high-level physicality and energy as he applied pressure to starting hooker Rob Herring.

“It went well,” said Kelleher this week as he reflected on his first curtailed campaign as a senior Ireland international. “I was just coming off the broken hand so was definitely thrown in at the deep end but it was really enjoyable.

“It was great learning off all the coaches – Faz, Catty [Mike Catt], Fogs [John Fogarty]. It was brilliant, the whole thing, and then obviously like working with Simon [Easterby] in the lineout, it was a different system to what we have to here and it was interesting picking that up quite quickly and running with it from there.

“It was a great learning experience and, please God, I’ll be involved in the future as well.”

It would be a shock if Kelleher isn’t in the Ireland squad Farrell is due to name later today or tomorrow morning for the resumption of the rescheduled Six Nations fixtures, with the home clash against Italy now just three weekends away.

Indeed, Kelleher will have realistic aims of pushing past Herring over the coming months with Ireland to earn his first start – Connacht’s Dave Heffernan is another contender – but says he hasn’t been giving international rugby too much consideration in recent weeks as he focuses on his job with Leinster.

ronan-kelleher Ryan Byrne / INPHO Kelleher was benched for the recent Champions Cup quarter-final. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

It hasn’t been all plain sailing for Kelleher with his province, with Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster having dropped him to the bench for the Champions Cup quarter-final defeat to Saracens.

The Leinster bosses sent Kelleher on for Cronin just two minutes into the second half, perhaps underlining their sense that they had made the wrong selection decision, and it was certainly something of a new experience for Kelleher being benched.

“To be honest, naturally, I was disappointed,” said the hooker. “But then pretty instantaneously, it just meant turning to ‘I have a new job to do.’

“We all knew how important the bench was going to be against Saracens. We knew it was going to be a full 80-minute performance. I just had it in my mind then that I had a job to do when I came on.

“Obviously it was a very disappointing result but my mindset didn’t change too much, to be honest. It was just a different role.”

The week before the Saracens game, Leinster had a poor lineout performance against Ulster in the Pro14 final, but that certainly wasn’t all on Kelleher’s shoulders.

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“There were a few different things,” said the hooker. “I thought, to be fair, Ulster had a good defensive system in play. We were trying to win ball at the tail and they were going up contesting, but obviously it was disappointing that we couldn’t get proper launch into the game, which we would have liked.

“We have worked hard to fix that in the last couple of weeks in training. We have been focusing on that area, getting comfortable with our drill again. I feel like it’s fixed now.”

ronan-kelleher Dan Sheridan / INPHO Kelleher is powerful in contact. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The 2019/20 season run-in was a miserable time for Leinster’s set-piece overall, with their scrum taken apart by Saracens in that European clash, but Kelleher said Welsh scrum coach Robin McBryde has made a strong impact since joining the province after last year’s World Cup.

“He has been brilliant. He slotted in pretty seamlessly, to be honest. He has brought with him loads of different techniques and stuff that he uses, particularly with us the hookers.

“At scrum time as well, loads of different drills and stuff that we wouldn’t have been used to previously. I think they are working well and, yeah, he has slotted in seamlessly.”

Kelleher will hope to round off this period with Leinster by helping them to win away to Benetton in the Pro14 on Saturday before he heads into Ireland camp looking to get his hands on the number two shirt.

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