Following an overwhelmingly positive summer both at home and abroad, Leinster and Ireland hooker Ronan Kelleher is eager to get back in the green jersey during the Autumn Nations Series.
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In the middle of June – on the back of productive campaigns for province and country – Kelleher was called into a pre-tour training camp that the British & Irish Lions held in Jersey.
Because he was not officially called into the final squad by the Lions management, the 23-year-old returned to Andy Farrell’s Ireland set-up ahead of summer Tests against Japan and the USA at the Aviva Stadium.
The powerful hooker started both of these games, but really caught the eye in the latter duel with the Eagles by registering four tries – despite only being on the pitch for 55 minutes.
Just four days on from that memorable performance, Kelleher was added to the Lions party for their tour of South Africa.
He may not have seen game-time in any of the Tests against the Springboks – he also arrived too late to feature in one of their midweek clashes – but Kelleher saw it as a hugely beneficial experience nonetheless.
“Pretty positive about it really, to be honest. Great to get to know all the lads and all the coaches. Obviously slightly disappointed not to get a bit of a run or anything, but at the same time, you can’t be too disappointed with it,” he explained.
“To go from not being in the squad to being brought out to train alongside them, it’s still a really positive experience. Also, the lads were great and I took a lot of learnings from it.
“Ultimately it also drove in me that I’m not far off. I felt it was a pretty competitive bunch over there and that was one of the big takeaways I had from it. That I felt confident out there.”
Even though he was the sole Irish hooker on tour, intense competition ensures that Kelleher has no guarantee of a starting place in the current Ireland team. Of the 13 senior caps he has accumulated so far, eight of them have been as a replacement.
Ulster’s Rob Herring and Dave Heffernan of Connacht were the other hookers to make the cut for this spring’s Guinness Six Nations, and now his Leinster colleague, Dan Sheehan, is breathing down his neck after being named as one of two uncapped players in the Ireland camp for this window.
While he is hell-bent on making the number 2 jersey his own, Kelleher agreed: “It’s always been a pretty competitive position. Obviously with Heff, myself, Rob and now Sheeno is coming in, and has had brilliant performances.
It has always been a competitive position, but I’m definitely going to be putting up my hand for the starting position for the two jersey. We’ll see how we go in training and hopefully we can make sure that we’re ready to go for the game.”
Herring was the preferred choice when Ireland closed out their Six Nations campaign at home to England in March, but Kelleher played his part off the bench as Farrell’s charges secured an impressive 32-18 victory.
Like so many players in the squad, he sees the performance in that game as the benchmark for what Ireland need to do as they build towards the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.
I think that performance against England, we kind of knew we had in us. Obviously we struggled beforehand to bring it out. It was a performance where things just clicked.
“For us it’s just about getting consistency and making sure that we can bring that performance every week. That’s obviously a big area of growth for us and we’ve been working towards that over the last two campaigns.
“That’s going to be the underlying theme for this campaign and going into the future, just to continuously improve.”
As someone who made his senior debut in the months that followed the 2019 World Cup in Japan, Kelleher is yet to face southern Hemisphere opposition at Test level – due in no small part to the Covid-19 pandemic.
So it is understandable that the Dubliner is excited about the prospect of tackling not just Japan this coming Saturday, but also New Zealand, the recent Rugby Championship winners, and Argentina in upcoming clashes.
Asked about the tussle with the All Blacks, he admitted: “It’s something that I haven’t really dwelled on or haven’t really thought of too much. I haven’t really had the opportunity to think about it yet.
That’s obviously a great challenge and it’d be a great opportunity, if I do get the nod, to play that game. Just a game that we as a group are really looking forward to, along with the other two games in this block.”
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