Dan Sheehan’s career has been a slow burner but it’s ready to ignite

Leinster and Irish hooker’s former coach at Trinity and his dad reflect on his journey

In the 77th minute last week the French fullback Melvyn Jaminet busted the tackles of Joey Carbery and Hugo Keenan inside the Irish 22 and then duly celebrated with his teammates and the entire French crowd as he dived over the line. And about 99 times out of 100 it would have been a try too.

Except that haring across the Irish try line, past Cian Healy, was Dan Sheehan. Not only did Sheehan make the tackle but he placed his right arm underneath the ball, brought his other arm around Jaminet's back to place his left hand underneath the ball as well, while spinning the French fullback 360 degrees and holding him up off the ground.

To their credit, referee Angus Gardner and his assistant Ben O’Keefe thought likewise, and video replays confirmed as much. Sheehan himself was sure too.

“He’s a smaller fella so I felt I had him in my grips and got my hands under (the ball). I didn’t know if they were going to give it because of me being on his back, I was just relying on my hands and you never know with those calls, but I definitely thought I had him (held) up.”

It was an exceptional piece of work. Jaminet and France had the consolation of another penalty but at the very least it was worth what could yet prove to be a very valuable losing bonus point.

Sheehan’s influential 55 minutes didn’t end there.

There were seven carries for 30 metres, one of the highlights being the catch, footwork, strength, offloading and 49th minute clear out which earned a penalty to the corner.

Then, after James Ryan brilliantly gathered Sheehan’s throw, four phases later he again used a good line, footwork and strength to engage three French players in the prelude to Gibson-Park sniping for his try.

Remarkable

In this and much else, Sheehan just looked made for Test rugby. Yet although he is 23 and will make his first start for Ireland on Sunday against Italy, it's remarkable to think he has only started six games for Leinster, all in the URC.

You tell him to run through a brick wall and he'll ask which brick do you want him to hit first

In those six games plus another 15 as a replacement, he has scored a scarcely believable 13 tries. While he admits a sizeable proportion of them have been from piloting at the back of mauls, there have been plenty of others, as Mack Hansen can testify.

Not many hookers are capable of stepping left, right and left again to beat an opposing winger on the inside as he did against Hansen at the RDS last December. There was also a try against the Scarlets from a Ross Byrne crossfield kick and that out-in line and 35 metre finish against Bath from Gibson-Park’s inside pass.

But Sheehan is the prototype of the modern-day hooker, somewhat in the mould of Malcolm Marx. With his height and size, and physical power, pace and footwork, Sheehan could play at centre or in the backrow.

Rugby is in the bloodline. His maternal grandfather, Denis Shaw, played as a prop for Clontarf and for Leinster in the 1950s, while his father Barry was a lock at UCD and Old Belvedere. His mum, Sinead, is a manager in a psychotherapy practice.

The oldest of four, his younger brother Bobby - even taller at 6’ 5” - is also a hooker with UCD and would have played for the Irish Under-20s but for the pandemic. They have two younger sisters, Emma, who is in her first year at Trinity, and Susie, who is doing her Leaving Cert in Alexandra College.

Destined

All Sheehan’s family were in Paris and will be in the Aviva Stadium on Sunday, while there is a planned meal including extended family in London the night before the Twickenham game, which also marks Susie’s birthday, as they do their damndest to obtain around 25 tickets for the match against England.

So Sheehan was always destined to play rugby, and began doing so with the Bective Rangers minis from the age of five, where club stalwarts Johnny Vaughan and Ben Kealy were his coaches.

“He just loved playing minis at Bective. Johnny Vaughan was infectious with his enthusiasm and they looked after them very well and gave him a love for it,” says his dad Barry.

Sheehan’s rugby was interrupted at the age of 11 when his father’s job with Heineken took the family to Bucharest in 2009 for three years. Sheehan and his siblings went to the American International School in Bucharest. Football and swimming were his sports, while he maintained his rugby handling skills and particularly his throwing with his younger brother.

“It probably developed from those days in Bucharest when we had nothing better to do than throw a ball around in the back garden or on the street, just trying to hang on to the rugby we couldn’t get over there,” he once explained.

“It is one of the stronger parts of my game. Maybe, it is my height as well. I have a foot on a lot of hookers when you take the release of the throw into account. I have a better angle to hit the hands of a jumper.

“I’ve been told that anyway. I am happy with my throw. I have always been comfortable with it.”

When Sheehan’s parents moved to Poland for a couple more years, the boys returned home and went to Clongowes Wood. He began playing at hooker immediately, and went on to reach two Leinster Schools Senior Cup semi-finals. “He loved Clongowes from the moment he got there,” says his dad, from whom Sheehan gets his size.

Both the pace and footwork are, according to the player himself, relatively self-made or self-taught within the Leinster system, and his father concurs.

Sheehan never played any under-age representative rugby nor did any gym work while at Clongowes and by his own admission his career has been a slow burner. Rónan Kelleher, Eoghan Clarke and Diarmuid Barron were all picked ahead of him for the 2018 Under-20 Six Nations, after he himself sustained ankle syndesmosis before Christmas.

But Kelleher was then ruled out of the Under-20 World Cup in France with an ankle injury, as was Clarke with a dislocated hip, leading to Sheehan’s inclusion. He was understudy to Barron until starting the last game, and Ireland’s sole win, against Japan.

Sheehan also suffered syndesmosis in his other ankle which, in hindsight, he believes was a blessing in disguise. Leinster oversaw his rehab, when otherwise he might have been released, and then needed extra bodies for training. Even then Leinster only had him on a short-term academy contract for the 2018-19 season.

But that was his chance to work on his game and was also his second season with Trinity, whom he'd joined the year before. Long-serving director of rugby Tony Smeeth simply recalls: "I couldn't believe how good he was.

Phenomenal athlete

“He’s a phenomenal athlete. When he came to us he was 6’ 3 and a half” and 115kg or whatever - a bit fleshy. I remember telling (forwards coach) Hugh Maguire we’ve got this young fella and he was always wary of me talking up players straight out of school. But after watching him for only 10 minutes he came over to me and said: ‘He’s the best thrower I’ve seen’.

“Hugh has been coaching for 30-plus years and he said: ‘He can just hit anything.’ And that’s the thing. Dan has been playing hooker all his life and he’s just got a very natural throw. He can arc it, float it or do whatever he needs to do.”

For much of his first season at Trinity they used him off the bench while starting him for the Under-20s. “We won the All-Ireland Under-20 Cup and I could send you the video of the final against Clontarf. He just carved it up.”

In his second season with Trinity, Sheehan started 16 games.

Cork Con beat Trinity in the semi-finals but one of their only three defeats was against Smeeth’s team in College Park. “He ripped one in from about 40 metres out. When we played Shannon, he did what he did to Mack Hansen and banged it down in the corner. The bear pit in Trinity, as the students call it, just howled. He was always that raw talent but by his own admission was a bit immature then.”

In the 2019-20 season, Sheehan was put into year two of the Leinster academy, while also switching to Lansdowne, where his uncle Derry Shaw had become president of the club that year. Again he tore it up, scoring another hatload of tries, while in eight Celtic Cup games for Leinster ‘A’ (with his brother on the bench) he scored eight tries in eight games, and for the 2020-21 season he was upped to a professional contract.

Still, it was only in October 2020 that Sheehan made his Leinster debut, scoring two tries against Zebre. Even then he had to wait until the following March for his second start but by last November, Andy Farrell had no hesitation in making Sheehan his 23rd new cap against Japan.

New environments

“I always say that the higher the bar you set for Dan the better he responds,” says Sheehan senior. “You tell him to run through a brick wall and he’ll ask which brick do you want him to hit first. You put him in new environments that demand more of him and he loves it. If you want the best out of him, just keep stretching him.”

Farrell noted as much before that Japan game. “Some lads find their feet straight away, like Dan Sheehan, and some take a little bit more time.”

He can seemingly multi-task too as he sat one of his final exams last Thursday afternoon studying Social Policy and Sociology at UCD.

Now comes his first Test start, and in the Six Nations and at the Aviva Stadium as well, a prospect that he was asked about last Wednesday.

“As a kid, you don’t picture yourself on the bench in these dreams that you have. It’s all about that ‘2’ jersey that you’ve been striving for, for so long. Obviously an opportunity has come up for me and Rob (Herring) to be going after the (starting spot).

“He’s experienced it before so I need to make sure that I get my chance to experience it. If given that, I need to take it with two hands.”

Somehow you sense he might well do.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times

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