Rónan Kelleher ready to step up in Ireland’s second Test against South Africa

‘I think it comes down to the small details we need to get right ourselves. We’re already looking to fix that,’ says 26-year-old hooker

Ireland's Rónan Kelleher with ball in hand makes valuable ground against South Africa in last weekend's first Test. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

The ruck and the ruckus that ensued sounds like the opening line to a one-act play and who knows, someday, it might hold that status. For now, though, it references a moment in Ireland’s 27-20 defeat to South Africa in the first Test at Loftus Versfeld.

Time and teams have moved on to the city of Durban where Saturday’s second Test will take place at Kings Park. Rónan Kelleher was an inadvertent principal character in that plotline last weekend, having come on following Dan Sheehan’s unfortunate tour-ending injury.

Ireland left wing, James Lowe, had a try chalked off following the intervention of the television match official Ben Whitehouse because he spotted what he deemed to be a ruck offence by Kelleher, Notwithstanding that the Irish replacement hooker had been “neck rolled” to the ground before his alleged transgression.

Sitting in the team hotel in Umhlanga Rocks, the Leinster hooker was asked about the incident. “I suppose I was [surprised], but when you break it down frame by frame you can see I’m on the ground, so by the letter of the law … But, yeah, at the time I thought I was on my feet, trying to get up through the ruck and trying to hook it back.


“Unfortunately, I hit the deck. But, yeah, I didn’t know at the time I was on the ground playing it.” The margin was minuscule, and he was ridiculously unlucky, but there isn’t a trace of self-pity. Kelleher won’t dwell on the issue in keeping with the general tone of Ireland’s post-game review where the focus was very much on improving performance glitches.

One of those related to the incident in question. He explained: “Discipline, around the breakdown really, we probably struggled there a bit, like my hook back, those little moments, just being cleaner there. You need to look at what you can control in your own performance really, that’s what we’ve done.

“We’ve looked at the areas where we were lacking a bit, we were short on, and we’ll try to fix them this weekend.”

The set-piece is one area that requires modification from match to match. Ireland’s scrum was excellent initially, before the Springboks’ “bomb squad”, won a couple of penalties, the second of which led to a penalty try at a scrum and a ludicrous yellow card for Kelleher.

“As a whole, we’ll have to improve on that, at times in the game it went well and then it dropped off a touch at times,” he said. “So, it’s just about nitpicking through those little details we might have got wrong or weren’t accurate with and try to right those wrongs.”

The scrum for the penalty try is one. Ireland were eviscerated. Kelleher explained the why and the wherefore. “I think we could have done a lot, we just got it wrong in that one moment. It’s just small moments.

South African and Ireland players engage to form a scrum during the first Test at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria last weekend. Photograph: Marco Longari/Getty Images

“Maybe on the set-up, I could set a touch more left to get us in better spacing, to be better connected. We don’t really win the set, they beat us to the punch there, and then it’s a knock-on effect.

“It helps that it’s their ball as well, and once they see they’ve won that initial punch they can get the ball in quickly. It’s a knock-on effect of a lot of things and I think it comes down to the small details we need to get right ourselves. We’re already looking to fix that.”

The lineout too will get a refinement or two, centring on what worked and what didn’t. When faced with the tall timber of the back five in the Springbok pack it’s about “committing 100 per cent, making sure everything [is right], top of the jump, top of the lift and nailing those little details”.

Sheehan’s misfortune is something with which Kelleher is well versed having endured a couple of injury pockmarked seasons. The empathy he had for Sheehan surfaced when he quickly shut down the suggestion his likely promotion to the starting team was “bittersweet”.

“It’s just bitter. You never want to see a team-mate injured, hurt or anything like that. I wouldn’t say bittersweet at all, it’s unfortunate but that’s sport.”

While any team would miss a player of Sheehan’s prodigious talent, Kelleher possesses all the quality and qualities of a top-class hooker. He’s a superb carrying game, explosive and quick, has good hands, awareness and is aggressive in the tackle. If the lineout, as a unit, works well it will free him up to excel around the pitch.

South African hooker Bongi Mbonambi namechecked Kelleher during the Springboks press briefing. He said: “The other hooker, [Rónan] Kelleher, he’s quite a good scrummager, he’s more physical, so it’s definitely not going to be easier.

“They do have a top-class frontrow and just one injury in the pack doesn’t really make a difference. We’re expecting a hard challenge when it comes to scrumming.”

Kelleher will be doing his utmost to make sure of that. The 26-year-old is due a positive break in terms of fortune and how he and Ireland would dearly love that to be on Saturday evening.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer