Wednesday 16 October 2019

'To have that faith put in you, it just makes you feel great'

Big Interview: Rónan Kelleher

Rónan Kelleher being tackled by Benetton’s Luca Petrozzi last weekend. Photo: Sportsfile
Rónan Kelleher being tackled by Benetton’s Luca Petrozzi last weekend. Photo: Sportsfile

Marcus Ó Buachalla

Like any young rugby player in the 12 counties of Leinster, Rónan Kelleher dreamt of pulling on a Leinster Rugby senior jersey. And on a quiet autumn morning in 2018 his phone suggested he might be one step closer to that reality.

"Guy sent me a text looking to have a meeting."

Rónan Kelleher before a Celtic Cup clash against Scarlets’ ‘A’ side. Photo: Sportsfile
Rónan Kelleher before a Celtic Cup clash against Scarlets’ ‘A’ side. Photo: Sportsfile

Guy is Guy Easterby, a former Leinster and Ireland scrum-half now operating as Head of Rugby Operations for Leinster Rugby. He is the one that discusses, amongst other things, who gets and doesn't get contracts.

It could be bad news, Kelleher knew that, but his overriding sense was that this was a positive so he and father Tim went in to meet Easterby in his office in UCD where the news he was hoping for was confirmed.

"It's unbelievable. My dad and I were sitting there in Guy's office and he welcomes us in and he starts talking about my progress to date in the Academy and then it shifts to what they see as my future and where they see me going and then it becomes very real and they are offering me a contract.

"It's mad. It's all you have ever wanted and there you are with it becoming a reality."

It was quite the vote of confidence for Kelleher. He had come into the 2018/'19 season with a shoulder injury which would keep him out of most of the pre-season so by his own admission he was behind the eight ball.

"Yeah, maybe a month and a half behind the rest of the lads so I was playing catch-up but obviously they saw something in me and what I was doing and saw a future which was brilliant.

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"It was a huge plus because there is never a guarantee when you are in the Leinster Academy that you will progress to the senior team or even that you will make your debut so, as I said, to have that faith put in you, it just makes you feel great."

This season Kelleher hasn't been caught behind the eight ball. Instead he has hit the ground running in his first pre-season as a senior player. He started in the pre-season wins against Coventry and Northampton and has since backed that up with another start and, most importantly, a win against Benetton Rugby in the Guinness PRO14. And now another start against Ospreys this evening in the RDS Arena is coming up.

Accurate

"We were all pretty happy to get the win last week but maybe relief is a more accurate word. We did a lot right but then there were times when we just didn't control the game.

"We have actually seen a lot of similarities this week in how the Ospreys play, with players that can punish you from anywhere. I think like a lot of teams they will want to come after us in this block knowing that we are missing so many players but for us we are just really excited to get out there at the RDS and play in front of the home support again."

Playing this evening will double Kelleher's caps tally to four having made his debut last season in the RDS against the Southern Kings and coming off the bench in a one-point loss away to Ulster. But the 21-year-old hooker isn't getting carried away with what he has achieved to date. Instead he has an eye on what's coming down the tracks, as well as on those hot on his heels in Leinster HQ in UCD and even down the road in the Ken Wall Centre of Excellence.

"I've loved every minute of it, don't get me wrong, but this is game two of a long season. Obviously Seán (Cronin) is away with Ireland at the World Cup so that leaves myself and JT (James Tracy) and Bryan Byrne scrapping it out here.

"Then Dan Sheehan is doing great stuff with the 'A's in the Celtic Cup and even below that again you have Dan's younger brother Bobby and also John McKee is there.

"The two lads have actually been in and out with us a bit and we are all working hard on our own games but also with each other.

"I think there is a good work ethic and an honesty there that we all want that jersey but we also want whoever has that jersey to be the best they can be and the only way they will do that is by being pushed by the rest of the group."

And today as we sit down to chat, being a case in point. Not yet 2.00pm and he has already been in to Leinster Rugby to get his massage and his body looked after but he has also had a throwing session with the rest of the hookers.

Add in a college group assignment that needs to be done as part of his final year in Commerce in UCD and it's a jam-packed day off for Kelleher but all with a view to getting the best out of himself on and off the field. And of course, keeping a close eye on him this year will be older brother Cian who has returned from a few seasons in Connacht. "It's been good having him about the place actually because we have never played together or trained together before. So it's definitely a new experience but a good one."

Kelleher, the senior, turned 25 during the summer so it plays out that when Rónan was in fifth year in St Michael's older brother Cian was making his debut with Leinster under Matt O'Connor. Fast forward a few years and they could yet take to the field together.

Settled

"It would be mad alright with Cian having moved west obviously for a few years. He has settled straight back in. I didn't have to show him around or anything, fell back in with his old mates and he's getting on well and as I said, I've enjoyed training with him.

"Growing up like any young brother you look up to those older siblings and it would be pretty special to take to the field together and would be a proud one for the family but right now I'd settle for a good performance on Friday against Ospreys and we'll take any other pluses if and when they come."

Whatever about the nature of the performance last weekend the five points from Italy was a good start for this squad, currently without 13 internationals. It leaves them vulnerable but Kelleher sees only positives.

"Over the next few weeks there will be chances for us younger lads to lay a claim on a jersey and we want to go out there and do our best and hopefully have the club in a really good place after this block."

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