Four-try Rónan Kelleher leads Ireland to convincing win over USA

Jet-heeled Robert Baloucoune back to his best as he scores Ireland’s first of 10 tries

Ireland’s Robert Baloucoune scores their side’s first try of the game against the USA  at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin.  Photograph: Donall Farmer/PA Wire

Ireland’s Robert Baloucoune scores their side’s first try of the game against the USA at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Photograph: Donall Farmer/PA Wire

 

Ireland 71 USA 10

As has now been immortalised by that video of Craig Casey crooning Careless Whisper in the away dressingroom at the Stadio Olimpico in February, a long-held tradition has it that a debutant must perform an initiation song.

But with eight players making their debuts in this 10 tries to one rout, to avoid a glorified concert the octet were to be divided into four duets.

“I’m actually dueting with the Cat yeah, I don’t know what he has in store for me,” revealed Harry Byrne, the Cat naturally being Robert Baloucoune.

All the debutants had their moments, but none stood out more than the sight of Baloucoune steaming on to Joey Carbery’s pass through the enormous gap created by three decoy runs to veer back to the right and score the first of Ireland’s 10 tries.

A star really may have been born.

It was no surprise. But for the torn hamstring which sidelined him for virtually a year until last February, his time would have come sooner. Swiftly back to his best too, the jet-heeled Baloucoune is also a beautifully balanced runner capable of changing direction either way at full tilt. A natural finisher, he’s improved his aerial and defensive game, and when his kicking is up to Test level there’s no telling what he could achieve.

Excitement

Every time the Enniskillen flyer touched the ball there was a frisson of excitement – as there was for the returning Andrew Conway, a man on a mission – among the 6,000 crowd.

In 10 carries he beat five defenders and made two clear linebreaks and 158 metres. It probably helped that he had McCloskey and another Ulster player in debutant James Hume inside him.

Nick Timoney gets it over the line to score a try. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Nick Timoney gets it over the line to score a try. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Hume is an elegant outside centre, who varnished his debut with his strength in the carry, some nimble footwork and the pass of the day, a left-to-right flat skip effort to Baloucoune.

Team-mates seem almost in awe of Baloucoune’s speed, and he is universally liked too.

“He’s lightning, he’s absolutely lightning,” admitted Byrne. “Whenever he gets the ball in training, he does some outrageous things. Just pure speed really. A lovely fella as well so delighted to see him do well.”

The eight newcomers were fortunate to have family and friends in attendance when you consider Hugo Keenan had to wait a dozen caps for that to happen.

Byrne used the word “brilliant” five times in describing his day. “It was brilliant to have friends and family there, quite a few people snuck in on extra tickets and stuff.” In his second Test, the Eagles outhalf Luke Carty had a 15-strong cabal of family and friends, as well as 15 from the USA, bearing his name.

“Particularly after a long slog for so many players and so many watching as well, with Covid it’s been a bit of a nightmare really,” admitted Byrne.

“For players it’s been pretty much 12 months of not knowing when we’re playing and not playing. It’s been a really long season. I think everyone was just eager to, I don’t know, showcase a bit of enjoyment or just get the crowd going.”

This was, he said, the “pinnacle” of his young career so far.

“To play for your country, particularly in rugby in this Irish team, it’s an honour and I absolutely loved it.”

As for Tom O’Toole, like Baloucoune and Byrne, one of Andy Farrell’s special projects for some time, it had been “an emotional week” reflecting on his circuitous journey from Drogheda to 10 years in Brisbane and through the Ulster academy.

“Many times along that journey you’ll have the ‘what ifs?’ or thinking about how you actually get there and I think finally getting there today was an unreal moment.”

O’Toole could also reflect on a fine 72-minute shift, outlasting the Toulouse prop David Ainu’u and showcasing the handling skills honed in favourable Queensland conditions.

“With your first cap you’re always going to have that extra bit of adrenaline and you want to make a good impression. When you have Paul O’Connell as your forwards coach you don’t need much motivation to put in the hard work whenever you’re on the pitch. No matter what minute it is you’re giving it your all.”

Duetting

As for his duet, O’Toole revealed: “I’m duetting with Nick Timoney – Marvin Gaye’s Ain’t no Mountain High Enough. So going with the classics. It’s a tough crowd though, so you never know what reaction you get.”

Ultimately though, Rónan Kelleher stole the show with four tries, becoming only the fourth Irish player to achieve the feat after Brian Robinson against Zimbabwe at the 1991 World Cup, Keith Wood against the USA in the 1999 World Cup and Denis Hickie against Italy in a 2003 World Cup warm-up in Thomond Park.

Kelleher was even substituted, akin to Wood, with the then Irish coach Warren Gatland joking that they did so before he scored a fifth.

But for Kelleher’s exploits, Gavin Coombes might have well been deemed the man of the match. He led the Irish tackle and carry counts and only the halves and McCloskey made more passes. Indeed, while he has exceptional strength and power, the deftness and subtleness of his passing is reminiscent of the most famous Munster number eight of all.

If Coombes develops anything like the same footballing savvy and game awareness over time, he’ll be quite a player all right.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 8 mins: Carbery pen 3-0; 17: Baloucoune try, Carbery con 10-0; 19: Carty pen 10-3; 24: Kelleher try, Carbery con 17-3; 27: Timoney try, Carbery con 24-3; 30: Kelleher try, Carbery con try 31-3; (half-time 31-3); 44: Kelleher try, Carbery con 38-3; 54: Kelleher try, Byrne con 45-3; 56: McCloskey try 50-3; 62: Keenan try, Byrne con 57-3; 71: Coombes try, Byrne con 64-3; 78: Baska try, Magie con 64-10; 82: Bealham try, Addison con 71-10.

IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Robert Baloucoune (Ulster), James Hume (Ulster), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster), Andrew Conway (Munster); Joey Carbery (Munster), Craig Casey (Munster); Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Rónan Kelleher (Leinster), Tom O’Toole (Ulster); Ryan Baird (Leinster), James Ryan (Leinster, capt); Caelan Doris (Leinster), Nick Timoney (Ulster), Gavin Coombes (Munster).

Replacements: Will Addison (Ulster) for Conway (h-t), Paul Boyle (Connacht) for Timoney, Harry Byrne (Leinster) for Carbery (both 54), Dave Heffernan (Connacht) for Kelleher, Ed Byrne (Leinster for Kilcoyne (both 55), Fineen Wycherley (Munster) for Baird (58 mins), Caolin Blade (Connacht) for Casey (60 mins), Finlay Bealham (Connacht) for O’Toole (73 mins).

USA: Mike Te’o (Utah Warriors); Christian Dyer (USA Sevens), Calvin Whiting (Utah Warriors), Bryce Campbell (Austin Gilgronis, capt), Mika Kruse (Utah Warriors); Luke Carty (LA Giltinis), Ruben de Haas (Austin Gilgronis); David Ainu’u (Toulouse), Joe Taufete’e (Lyon), Paul Mullen (Utah Warriors); Gregory Peterson (Newcastle Falcons), Nick Civetta (Rugby United New York); Hanco Germishuys (Rugby United New York), Riekert Hattingh (Seattle Seawolves), Cam Dolan (Nola Gold).

Replacements: Nate Brakeley (Rugby United New York) for Petersen (h-t), Kapeli Pifeleti (Saracens) for Taufete’e (48), Dino Waldren (Nola Gold) for Mullen (58), Michael Baska (Utah Warriors) for de Haas (59), Will Magie (Austin) for Dyer (64), Psalm Wooching (San Diego Legion) for Germishuys (66), Matt Harmon (Nola Gold) for Ainu’u (68), Dyer for Carty (70), Andrew Guerra (Nola Gold) for Dolan (73).

Red card: Hattingh (54 mins).

Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).

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