Ireland’s Jack Kelly takes inspiration from Leinster young guns

Fullback will be sixth consecutive Under-20 captain from Dublin school St Michael’s

Jack Kelly smiles in describing himself as a "human tackle bag" during his time with the Ireland senior squad, not once but twice, last November.

On the first occasion he had been training with the Ireland Under-20 squad, one that he will captain in the upcoming age-grade Six Nations Championship; on the second, Kelly and his Leinster and Ireland team-mate Jordan Larmour were summoned for a reprise at the Carton House training pitch.

He thoroughly enjoyed the experience, confessing to being a bit wide-eyed as he sought to gain as much as he could from the opportunity. “What I noticed from it was that every training session is as important as the next,” said Kelly.

“The senior players were striving for 100 per cent at every training session, they were never just thinking, ‘this is a training session, the game will come and that’s when we will switch on.’ There were always acting as if they were playing a match.


“That’s what I took away from it; try to reach a certain intensity in training that you would look to get to in a match.”

So did it whet the appetite? “My main reaction was ‘this is pretty cool.’ I was taken aback and a bit in awe of the circumstances that I found myself in.

“On reflection, it is cool to get those experiences because you want to be in that position at some point in your career. It gives you a small taste and you want to come back for more.”

Young backs

Ireland senior coach Joe Schmidt took a moment to acknowledge the presence of the two young backs. "He greeted us as we came in and sent us a nice text afterwards, thanking us for coming up. They needed extra back three players."

The 19-year-old Kelly's progress resembles the effortless elegance of his running style. Last year he captained St Michael's in the Leinster Schools Senior Cup and has progressed impressively to first-team rugby at Dublin University in the Ulster Bank League Division 1A this season. More recently, he was voted by his peers to captain the Ireland Under-20 team.

In doing so he will become the sixth consecutive Under-20s captain from St Michael’s, a staggering achievement for the one school, following on from James Ryan, Josh Murphy, Nick McCarthy, Dan Leavy and Luke McGrath.

Kelly spoke about the quality of the coaching in the school that has produced so many professional rugby players in recent times, how honoured he felt on a personal level and name-checking returning players like Cillian Gallagher and Johnny McPhillips, upon whom he will rely for advice. And there was also a text message of support from his predecessor in the position.

“James [Ryan] was my captain as I was going through the school. He sent me a text congratulating me. I have had a chat with him about what the Six Nations is like, what the World Cup is like and what the Under-20s is like as well. It is great to have friends that can give you that bit of guidance.”

Pivotal influence

It was guidance of a less subtle nature that benefited him in his final year at school, one that had a pivotal influence on his fledgling career. “I only transitioned to fullback in sixth year. I always saw myself as a centre until my coach [Andy Skehan and backs coach Andy Kenny] told me otherwise.

“I am pretty grateful that they made that decision for me as I didn’t agree with it at the time,” he laughed.

He spoke about the qualities he admires in a couple of fullbacks close to home. He admires Rob Kearney’s high fielding in particular and Isa Nacewa’s tactical kicking and would love to develop those skills to complement his exceptional running ability.

He's also looking at a few players closer to his own age. "At the moment, seeing guys like Rory O'Loughlin and Garry Ringrose, who are only a few years ahead of me, getting onto the senior team in Leinster, doing so well and having such an impact, I would look at them. I would be looking to learn from them and maybe follow."

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer