Leinster provide Dan Kelly first-hand view of what might have been

England international represented Ireland U20s before committing to country of birth

Dan Kelly’s rugby career has not alone been driven by talent but also several serendipitous moments where his ability to change direction off the pitch was every bit as telling as his footwork on it.

The 20-year-old centre is expected to line out at inside centre for the Leicester Tigers in their Champions Cup quarter-final against Leinster at Welford Road on Saturday evening. In a parallel universe the Manchester-born player could well be wearing the blue of Leinster.

It is just two years ago since the teenage Kelly was a popular and central figure in an Ireland team that won their first three matches in the Under-20 Six Nations Championship before the remainder of the tournament and indeed that year's Junior World Championship was wiped out due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Kelly, who qualified through his Irish born grandparents, formed a destructive centre partnership with Haydn Hyde, a Londoner who also came through the Exiles IQ system and is now back with Harlequins. Kelly was a year young in 2020 so was eligible again last year. Richie Murphy had taken over the Ireland 20s from Noel McNamara and initial prognosis was that the young centre would be available.

Kelly had been offered a place in the Irish academy system at provincial level but had turned it down on the basis that he wanted to finish his studies at Loughborough University. He was approached by and agreed to sign for the Leicester Tigers, then under Geordan Murphy's direction, and there is no doubt that there would have been pressure to switch national allegiance, not necessarily from the former Irish fullback and director of rugby at the Tigers but from the club.

Kelly started playing rugby at six in Rochdale before moving to Kirkham Grammar School for his sixth form education. He explained previously in an interview: "I was looking to go to college and Kirkham was such a great place. I was around good coaching and talented people.

“It just kicked me on a bit further. Kirkham was massive education-wise and rugby wise.” He also played with Sale Sharks but the club declined to give him an academy contract.

University

He went to Loughborough University on a scholarship and there came under the rugby tutelage of the director of rugby Gerard Mullen whom Noel McNamara had coached at Clongowes; Mullen recommended Kelly. Having been a standout player in the 2020 Six Nations, the centre looked set to play an important role with Ireland when the 2021 tournament was played in early summer in Cardiff.

Murphy, who succeeded McNamara as Ireland U-20 coach, had remained in regular contact with Kelly. Indeed, the player had been on several Zoom calls relating to Irish team prep. “We were keen that he would come over here and join the Irish system, but he wanted to finish degree first and then got the opportunity with Tigers,” Murphy said.

Kelly never made it to any training sessions and on the day that Ireland announced their squad for the Under-20 Six Nations, Kelly was named by England head coach Eddie Jones as part of an extended squad for summer internationals.

While there was disappointment that Ireland had lost a talented young player, there was also an understanding as to why he made the decision. Murphy said at the time: “It’s obviously disappointing. Dan is a loss. He was in our system last year. He obviously went back to Leicester and is in college over there. His life is around that area. Within the conversations that the IRFU have had with him, Dan has been very good.

"He really enjoyed his time with us, but he feels that he needs to go in a different direction. We respect his decision, and we move on from it." Kelly made his senior England debut against Canada at Twickenham last summer.

Kelly has made 42 appearances for the Tigers to date - he has scored three tries and a conversion - and has been acknowledged as a defensive leader for the team despite his tender years. He’s not too shabby going forward either, strong in the carry and with good footwork. It will be interesting to benchmark his development on Saturday.

On the other issue only time will tell whether his switch of national allegiance was the right move.