'We just take each week as it comes and that's important'
The Big Interview: Cian Kelleher
Connacht's season looked to be in a desperate state heading to Switzerland on September 14, with five defeats from their opening six games in the Guinness PRO14, and Kieran Keane coming under pressure already.
But fast-forward three matches and a month later, and suddenly the 2015-16 PRO12 champions are back in the winning mood. They notched three victories in a row and the defeat of Munster sent ripples around the league.
Nevertheless, when Joe Schmidt announced his Ireland squad, on October 26, there were only three Connacht names in it. Bundee Aki, Kieran Marmion and Ultan Dillane were the lucky trio, but their Connacht team-mate Cian Kelleher says once the team consistently get the results, that number will multiply.
"It's great to see Bundee in there now. It's great to see himself, Kieran and Ultan learning so much. They can bring that experience back to the team then," says Kelleher.
"Connacht can get a few more Irish players called up when they string a few more wins together and they start knocking on the door again but we're getting there."
Kelleher has been an international prospect for years now, ever since he lined out for the Ireland U-18s, before he had even represented his native Leinster at underage level.
The Sandymount native progressed into the Leinster sub-academy and was part of the Ireland U-20 team for the Junior Rugby World Cup in New Zealand three years ago when Ireland finished fourth.
But despite assuming a massive reputation Kelleher only managed seven appearances in two seasons with Leinster. He joined Connacht at the start of 2016-'17 and says Aki's achievements in particular are a big inspiration to everyone at the Sportsground.
"He is an incredible rugby player. He is tactically very astute, knows the game inside out and it's great learning off him every day," says Kelleher.
"He is a good tackler, good attacker and has good skill in terms of passing. You are just learning off him all the time, talking to him and he's a good person to have in the squad.
"It's a huge inspiration for a lot of the young lads in the squad. They can look at him to aspire to do the same and get into an Ireland squad in the next few years."
But for now all of the focus is on Connacht and ensuring that three wins become four against Cheetahs before the international break.
"We are getting used to the shape now a bit. It's good to get the few wins to get us back into winning ways. Hopefully we can get a win this weekend and it can become a bit of a habit again. Winning and losing can be a habit," says Kelleher.
Moves "We have had a couple of months in the system and we are a bit more used to it. Hopefully we can continue to get the ball wide a bit more and I can get on the end of a few moves."
Kelleher has scored eight tries in 21 appearances for Connacht since he arrived, and were it not for a couple of injuries, he would likely have been in Joe Schmidt's sights too.
But the league and Europe provide him with the opportunity to get more game-time now and the Lansdowne clubman is determined to take his chances.
"We are in a tough pool in Europe this year as well with Brive, Oyonnax and Worcester. But two wins from two is not bad going forward, especially with the conditions in the game against Worcester," he says.
"We are just taking it one game at a time. We are not thinking too far down the line. We just take each week as it comes and that's important too. You don't want to get ahead of yourself."
Kelleher is in the process of finishing his Economics and Politics degree from UCD over the next couple of years.
He went to school with the likes of Garry Ringrose in St Michael's, where he won a Leinster Senior Cup in 2012, and that winning mentality sticks.
"I got a string of games together at the start of last season. I got on well and I was happy with how things were going, the coaches were too," says Kelleher.
"I just tore my hamstring in that Champions Cup game away to Wasps and it plagued me for the three months after that. That was the start of December and I didn't really get back playing until the Scarlets game at the end of April.
"I only got two games in at the end of the season with Scarlets and Munster and then tore my quad against Northampton in the first minute.
"I am feeling really good at the minute, injury-free, so hopefully I can maintain that and get a bit of games and form together."
The injury against Wasps was a particular lowlight in Kelleher's campaign last term, and he missed the famous victory at the Sportsground the following week.
"It was disappointing at the time. It was really exciting times and we turned over Wasps a week later at the Sportsground," he recalls.
"It was great to be there but you were kicking yourself that you weren't playing. You learn so much in those sort of games. It stands to you a lot.
"I have to do the basics, do my role and I'll be fine. I was in for a few matches when the weather was pretty bad.
"I am getting back to form now after a disrupted pre-season. Hopefully now I can hit the ground running and hit of a bit of form in a string of games."
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