New Connacht signing Cian Kelleher has just completed his sixth week of pre-season training at the Sportsground. The 21-year-old, who signed with the province from the Leinster Academy, is thriving in his new surroundings.
“I’m really enjoying it. It’s a change for me – not only moving from an Academy to a full contract but also to a different set-up. But it’s been great and I’ve loved getting to know all the lads. There is a lot to learn and I’m trying to catch up from last season but the coaches and other players have been brilliant,” explained Cian Kelleher, the talented Dublin-born youngster who can play at full-back, centre and on the wing.
“I would have known a lot of the squad already, either through the Emerging Ireland tour to Georgia last summer and then a few of the lads from my underage days. I played with Shane Delahunt, Peter Robb and Conor McKeon so I knew them quite well before I came in.
“There are great relationships here – I’ve moved in with Eoin McKeon and John Cooney out in Knocknacarra. It’s a fun house with lads always calling over.”
Kelleher, whose move from Leinster to Connacht was announced in early May, said he is relishing the pre-season training and the demands that come with it.
“I was watching a lot of the Connacht games in detail towards the end of last season and really trying to understand the back-three role. The last few weeks have been about perfecting my knowledge around the calls.
“One thing I noticed straight away when I came in was the emphasis on skills. We do a lot of work with Dave (Ellis), the skills coach, but there’s a huge importance put on skills from all the coaches whether it’s Pat (Lam), Conor (McPhillips) or Jimmy (Duffy). It’s a huge part of our game here and I’m really enjoying that.
“Tiernan (O’Halloran) came back in a few weeks after I started and I was keen to catch up with him straight away and pick his brain. Danie (Poolman) and Niyi (Adeolokun) have both been really helpful as well when I was working to get up to speed with the game-plan as quickly as I could.”
Watching the PRO12 final in May brought mixed feelings for Kelleher, as his own Leinster lost out to his new side Connacht in the Edinburgh sunshine.
“It was a strange feeling alright,” he recalled. “It was my home province coming up against the team I was moving to. But I thought Connacht played outstanding rugby and I was really happy for them. It’s exciting to be here on the back of that and there’s huge hunger there to bring it to another level again this season.”
Looking ahead to the new season, Kelleher is fully focused on the coming weeks, saying: “I’m looking forward to the week-long training camp in France next week and hopefully getting some game-time against Montpellier over there. Everyone will be gunning to be involved in that round 1 game against Glasgow Warriors here at the Sportsground but we’ve a lot to do between now and then.
“For me this season, I just want to improve as much as I can as a player and get as much game-time as possible. I want to work closely with the coaches on my skill development and hopefully see that transferred out on the pitch.”
Having represented Ireland at Under-18 Schools, Under-19 and Under-20 level, the Lansdowne starlet travelled as part of the Emerging Ireland squad that won the Tbilisi Cup in 2015, not long after he came on as a replacement for the Ireland XV side that played the Barbarians at Thomond Park.
“That week last summer was pretty crazy for me. I had just won the Ulster Bank League Rising Star of the Year award with Lansdowne and I met Joe Schmidt at the awards ceremony. He said I’d be hearing from him soon. The next day I got a call from the Ireland team manager Mick Kearney asking me to come into camp in Limerick ahead of the Ireland XV v Barbarians game. I got on for the last 10 minutes at centre which was a great experience.
“That summer I also went on the Emerging tour to Georgia which was just brilliant. There were about nine Connacht players on that tour so I really got to know them well.”
Not surprisingly, the question of international rugby comes up, with Kelleher admitting: “Every player has ambitions to play international rugby, I’m 21 and there is some really stiff competition in the back-three here. So for me, it’s about working hard to get my opportunity with Connacht. I’m really enjoying it here and can’t wait for the season to start.”
Following next week’s pre-season game against Montpellier in France (Thursday, August 11, kick-off 8pm local time), Connacht take on Glasgow in round 1 of the PRO12 in Galway on Saturday, September 3 (kick-off 5.15pm). There are still a number of Main Stand Season Tickets (adult, junior and concession) available to purchase for 2016/17. Click here for more information.