Colosseum will hold no fear for Test match animal Rónan Kelleher
23-year-old’s pace, physicality and eye for the line make him the perfect modern hooker
Rónan Kelleher’s lineout throwing is good - but he is not infallible. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Back in October 2014, Rónan Kelleher suffered a badly dislocated ankle in a training session at St Michael’s College. It was an injury that would sideline him for a year and might have broken the spirit of other 16-year-olds.
But early into his rehabilitation, while in a wheelchair, Kelleher was back at the school’s training ground and practicing his throwing against the wall of the changing room, where a circular target had been painted.
Andy Skehan, coach of the St Michael’s team, has never forgotten that image.
“He’s always had a brilliant attitude and just been incredibly hard-working,” says Skehan. “I wouldn’t say he always had his eyes on playing at the highest level, but he was always in the main teams when he played. Really, really solid. Very dependable. Just got on with it. A joy to coach really.”
Also physically mature beyond his years, Kelleher had broken into the school’s senior Cup team when in transition year at 16. Their first round game was against Terenure College.
“I already knew he was good but this was a game in front of a few thousand people, and he was running amok, making line breaks and stuff like that,” Skehan recalls.
Two years later, there was another meeting with Terenure in the quarter-finals.
“He was very good in that game too, and in the semi-final as well, but we had a leaky defence, conceded a lead, then came back, but threw out two intercepts. That kind of spoiled the day for us but in those games against Terenure he was a stand out player. Loads of carrying. We used him in the wider spaces, in the 15 metre channels, and he did a lot of damage there.”
Kelleher also performed academically, although being the son of the school principal at St Michael’s, Tim Kelleher, who hails from Cork and was a decent hurler, he wouldn’t have had much choice.
As is often the case, Kelleher had an older brother to toughen him up emulate in Cian, the winger now back in Leinster after his stint in Connacht. Three and a half years older, Cian was part of the St Michael’s team that won the Leinster Schools Senior Cup in 2012, when Rónan was 14 and helped complete a school and sibling double in the Junior Cup final a week later.
From Sandymount, Kelleher began playing mini rugby at four years of age with Bective Rangers, and also played Gaelic football, tennis and basketball before rugby increasingly took hold in St Michael’s.
Initially a wing turned centre, he graduated from the backrow to the frontrow, before settling on hooker from the age of 18 onwards. After that dislocated ankle he returned as a prop in his final school year.
“Even though I saw Rónan as a hooker in the long-term it made more sense for that team because we had a dynamite little hooker, Stephen Judge,” explains Skehan.
St Michael’s made the semi-finals, where they were beaten by a Belvedere team featuring David Hawkshaw at outhalf.
Kelleher also made the Irish Schools and Irish Under-18s team in his final school year. “I had wanted to pick him the year before,” recalls Noel McNamara, then the Irish schools coach. “He never played Leinster schools and in his final year he played loosehead for Michael’s. Remarkably, we picked him as a hooker and he threw. He was excellent, and unbelievably effective as a ball carrier, very dynamic, very powerful, a brilliant attacker and his set-piece improved all the time.
He’s a new age type of Irish forward really. He can do it all
“He played in the Under-18 festival in Bristol and scored a try off a lineout play down the front against England, who had a number of future internationals in it. Unfortunately a 13-12 loss.”
“You talk about a Test match animal?” says McNamara. “One hundred per cent. He’s just got that competitiveness and mindset.”
Although a collarbone injury in the fourth game of the 2018 Under-20 Six Nations against Scotland would require surgery and rule him out the ensuing Under-20 World Cup, Kelleher left an abiding impression on McNamara.
“At a training camp pre-Christmas I showed him some clips of Schalk Brits running early lines at the ‘D2’. We went out to train and Rónan nearly killed Diarmuid Barron running the exact same line literally 30 minutes later. Diarmuid almost lost a tooth.
“But he is just so competitive and such an athlete. He has had challenges but to see him get to where he is now has been brilliant.
“He’s a new age type of Irish forward really,” says McNamara. “He can do it all. If you look at his impact off the bench in the last two games, his dynamic carries, his impact in the tackle, his energy, his athleticism, they all point towards something that could be an unbelievably effective player for Ireland for the next number of years.”
In 2016-17, Skehan coached Kelleher again at UCD, where he studied commerce. “In the AIL you were only allowed five subs and I remember having to bring him on in the backrow for his first AIL game against Young Munster in Belfield,” recalls Skehan. “He was good too.”
As UCD had another hooker in the Leinster academy Kelleher joined Lansdowne, where Mike Ruddock was his coach for a couple of seasons.
“I’d worked with his brother Cian, who’s a smashing lad as well, so I guessed he’d be a lovely guy to work with,” says Ruddock.
“It was pretty obvious as soon as you saw him that he had the physical attrbitues. He’s a big, strong, six foot guy, which is the modern physical size for a hooker. With his skill set it was also pretty obvious that there was only one way he was going to go really.
“I just loved his focus. He’s quite a quiet lad, doesn’t say a huge amount but when you do get into a deep conversation with him you know he’s thinking a lot about his performance and about the team and how it plays.”
That size and physicality stood out in AIL games even before he turned 20 midway through that 2017-18 season.
“He was very strong in the collisions, both in attack and in defence, for such a young man,” adds Ruddock. “His throwing was very, very good because he was never fazed, even against some of the better line-out defences like Cork Constitution, in fairness to their coaching, and they had Brian Hayes in the secondrow. But he was always very composed under that sort of pressure.”
“So there wasn’t much I could do to help him really over and above the work he was doing in the Leinster academy. The only area I was able to add a little bit to, and where he perhaps needed a little extra focus, was scrummaging.”
Indeed, Ruddock was renowned for his scrummaging sessions, and Kelleher would come back from them and say “Mike loves a good scrum”.
At Kelleher’s first scrummaging session with Lansdowne, Ruddock asked him about the Under-20 World Cup. Kelleher said it had gone pretty well until the final play-off match against Georgia, which Ireland won, when the opposition tighthead had bored onto him and made life difficult.
“Like most young frontrowers he hadn’t come across something like that because all the laws encourage everyone to scrum straight and square, and be stable,” says Ruddock.
“So we worked on tools that he could use to counter those things but also to work with his tighthead and loosehead at different times to double up on the opposition loosehead or tighthead as needs be.”
Such tools proved handy in the All-Ireland League, a brilliant breeding ground for young frontrowers.
“You’ve got so many young guys on the way up, older guys on the way down, guys who scrummage really well but are never going to be mobile enough to play pro rugby, so there’s all sorts of different experiences coming together.”
“When you play Under-20 rugby or ‘A’ team rugby, and even the professional game, guys are athletically much better for 80 minutes, better coached and probably more conditioned to staying within the rules, whereas lower down guys tend to go off script a bit more than you might get in the pro game, particularly as some of the referees could be less experienced as well.”
Kelleher’s pathway has been fairly linear, except for those injuries. On Saturday he starts his first Six Nations game at the age of 23, still relatively young for a hooker when you consider the likes of Jerry Flannery and Rory Best played their best rugby from their mid to late 20s onwards.
Hence, while his throwing is very good there are still liable to be off days. Throwing is likened to goal-kicking, but there are a myriad of differences factors at work, be it the call, the timing of the lift, the receiver’s skills, the weather and the opposition, not to mention the crowd (remember those days?).
“When you’re away to Young Munster or over in Clontarf, not everyone is going to go quiet to allow you to go into that routine. So you have to learn to work through those moments and show that composure,” says Ruddock. “And he absolutely had that.”
Kelleher brings plenty else to the mix, not the least of which, as we saw last week, is his eye for the try line. In 19 games for Leinster he has scored nine tries. Even allowing for their potent maul, that’s quite a strike rate.
He’s always had that in his armoury.
“He would score tries,” says Ruddock, “which as a hooker is a massive bonus. What was amazing about Rónan was that he could pick and go, and score a close-range try, but he’s also quite effective in the wider channels and could score from there – even from a cross kick.”
At international level, ideally every player should have at least one X-factor, or a point of difference.
“But I think he’s got a number of points of difference,” says Ruddock. “There’s not going to be many bigger hookers than him on the world stage. So his size and physical ability is a stand out, and his total adherence to being a professional is a stand-out. You add in the ability in the collisions and you’ve got an exceptional player there.
“This is his first start in the Six Nations, away from home and a must-win game,” Ruddock outlines. “Not a bother to him.”
“I used the word focus about him, but you could easily add the word temperament. You can see him oozing drive, but in a composed way. He just doesn’t seem to get ruffled. That’s another stand out feature.”
Kelleher has had a head start on Dan Sheehan, who is looming in his rear view mirror and has similar attributes, but all things being equal, and his body stays healthy, he has the ability to be more than a bit special.