Last Saturday Rónan Kelleher made just his second start for Leinster in six months, ending a two-month absence due to a hamstring injury. This compounded the shoulder problem that curtailed his Six Nations campaign just 25 minutes into the round two tie against France, and ruled him out of the summer tour. It’s been a mostly frustrating nine months for him.
But it was an encouraging return. Although Leinster were clinical, they had scarcely 40 per cent possession, and Kelleher was restricted to just four carries. But he put his shoulder to the wheel, making 17 tackles in his 65 minutes on the pitch, a total only exceeded by Max Deegan in a hard-working backrow.
But it wasn’t one of the carries, tackles or darts that made Kelleher feel like he was finally back. “To be honest just driving out to the game I was happy to be back. Then as soon as I arrived at the ground I was back into business mode where I had to think about my job and what comes next.
“But when I was just driving in through the gates and walking up to the changing room, that was probably the moment when I was like, ‘grand, I’m back now, thank God’.”
After missing the last three rounds of the Six Nations, Kelleher did return for Leinster’s run-in, starting four games, but within 13 minutes of the Champions Cup final against La Rochelle in Marseilles, the shoulder injury resurfaced, forcing him to miss the New Zealand tour.
No sooner had he played in the opening two games of this season against Zebre Parma and Benetton than what seemed an innocuous hamstring twinge side lined him for two months, meaning he also missed the November series.
“They were probably equally as frustrating to be honest,” says Kelleher, who admits rehabbing can be a lonely place albeit others can be sidelined for longer with worse injuries.
Kelleher was also advised not to rush things, especially as hamstring issues always carry the risk of creating a bigger problem, and at the back of it all there is the bigger picture of the World Cup next season.
This was part of the conversations he had with both Andy Farrell and Paul O’Connell, who also gave Kelleher individual work-ons to ensure he was well primed when he returned, but it was nothing like being in match week mode. Nor is Kelleher, like most players, a good watcher.
“You’re not really a fan. You’re more looking as a player reviewing and analysing the game, and then when you’re not involved, I wondered ‘what are they doing there?’ or ‘what had they done that week to prepare for that?’ or ‘what play are they running and why are they doing that against this team etc?’ Yeah, I was probably a bad watcher really.”
He lives with Caelan Doris and Hugo Keenan but wasn’t of a mind to bombard them with many questions.
“I know when they’re out of camp it’s their time to decompress and de-stress from the whole thing. I didn’t want to be bugging them and getting them back into camp mode. Still, living with the two lads has been great. It’s still a bit of craic and then I have all my close mates around. They’re all living in the area. My family is in the area as well. Off the pitch all is fine. It’s just a time thing where unfortunately it just takes time for things to heal, and the world goes on as you’re healing,” he says with a wry chuckle.
The form of Dan Sheehan has compensated for Kelleher’s absence, with Sheehan starting all but the Fijian game of Ireland’s last nine Tests. While this assuredly made Kelleher a tad envious, it’s evidently a very healthy rivalry.
“He’s played very well, and he’s playing great at the minute. It’s one of those ones where it can only benefit the team, though. You look at the Springboks in 2019 when they had [Malcolm] Marx and Bongi (Mbonambi), they had minutes to go around. So, as long as we’re winning that’s the main thing, and the fact that we’re both there, that competition is pushing us both on.
“It’s just making sure to keep challenging each other and learning together as well because we’d be doing a lot of individual prep together around lineout time, and that can only be a good thing for us both and with Ireland as well.”
The prospect of Saturday’s URC summit meeting with Ulster being the second in a ten-game block is one Kelleher, as much as any player in the country, relishes.
“This is the business part of the season where it’s the nitty-gritty. A massive part of what happens now will determine what happens in May and June, so it’s all hands-on-deck now for the next 10 weeks.”
The memory of last May and June is another source of motivation. “It’s still sickening enough thinking back on it, but, yeah, that’s obviously the north star, making sure we’re back there competing for trophies.”