Packing down against a huge Tongan front row on Saturday, Ronan Kelleher is hoping to recapture the form that saw him make seven successive starts for Ireland between 2021 and 2022.
With a memorable four-try salvo against the USA and another score against New Zealand, Kelleher was marking himself out as a possible long-term successor to Rory Best in the number 2 jersey. 2021 also saw him called up to the British & Irish Lions squad as additional cover.
Roll on two years and the Leinster hooker is ready to put a series of unfortunate injury setbacks behind him. A hamstring issue saw him miss Ireland’s Rugby World Cup warm-up games, but he returned for an encouraging 30-minute cameo against Romania.
With Dan Sheehan, who has made the most of his team-mate’s injury-enforced absences for province and country, set to be available to face South Africa next week, and Rob Herring scoring two tries in as many games, the competition at hooker is especially high.
Kelleher says it can ‘only be a positive thing for Irish rugby as we’re constantly driving each other on’, and it would be no surprise to see him give a timely reminder of how good a player when making just his third international start of the last 19 months.
Speaking during the build-up to the Nantes clash with Tonga, he said: “I’ve been battling injuries over the last 12 months or so and I’m just delighted to be here and looking forward to getting out there. Really looking forward to the challenge.
“Looking at Tonga’s last few games they are obviously massively physical. It is going to be a big challenge, which I’m looking forward to. Looking at their last few Test results they are a really strong outfit.”
The fight for set-piece supremacy will be crucial, with Ireland keen to get their lineout back to the attacking weapon that it can be. There is also plenty of interest in how the scrums play out as Tonga’s front row trio weigh in at a collective 387 kgs or just under 61 stone.
Tighthead prop Ben Tameifuna – the biggest of the lot at just shy of 24 stone – added a wry wink when saying he has ‘just the old porridge and eggs’ for breakfast.
The Tongan captain, who has played for the Chiefs, Bordeaux Bègles and Racing 92, spoke to the media about the importance of the scrum for his side in terms of converting that weight advantage into scores.
“Scrum time is going to be huge for us, we’re going to have a crack,” explained Tameifuna. “Like every game, it starts up front and if we can throw that kind of good weight into points it would be good for us and good for our campaign.”
Well versed in the intricacies of the scrum, Ireland’s own tighthead, Tadhg Furlong, has been in ‘bullish form’ according to scrum coach John Fogarty. The Wexford man unleashed one of the World Cup’s best quotes so far to preview the scrum showdown with the Pacific Islanders.
“Sometimes in scrummaging there is no replacement for displacement,” quipped Furlong. “Weight makes it heavy, it makes it hard because of the nature of it. Look, it’s a big challenge, it’s a big pack and we have to be technically good, you know.”
The 9pm local time kick-off will see Ireland playing in a forecasted 19 or 20 degrees rather than the 36-degree afternoon heat of last weekend in Bordeaux.
Furlong compared the sweltering conditions of the last few weeks to ‘an oven or someone blowing a hair dryer in your face’. No matter the weather, he says it will be a privilege to play, particularly so as they come up against Tonga for the first time.
The two-time Grand Slam winner spoke about how beneficial it is for Toutai Kefu’s men to get an extended pre-season spell together – their players ply their trades at clubs dotted across four continents. As a collective, they are sure to play with immense pride for their country on rugby’s biggest stage.
You think of where Tonga are coming in from and it’s their first game of the World Cup, but they have players who play all over the world really.
“It must be special for them to get their countrymen in a room and gel and bond for a prolonged pre-season.
“We are lucky we get to do it the majority of time in Ireland but it’s a special tournament for them, to spend it with their countrymen for a long time, so of course we respect them.”
As starting hooker, Kelleher will be a central figure as Andy Farrell’s charges look to get an improved return off their lineout and use it to make dents in the Tongan defence. Against Romania, they had the first round’s least efficient lineout on their own throw with a success rate of 66.7%.
It was up at 85.7% when they won the Grand Slam earlier this year, and 81.3% across last month’s warm-up fixtures, so a return to that higher level of reliability would be a welcome boost heading into the matches against South Africa and Scotland.
Kelleher noted: “It’s about the information, pushing the little intricacies of it, getting the maximum height. We have done a lot of work over the last few weeks and it is just about fine-tuning little things, little tweaks here and there.
“It is not that our lineout has been bad but hopefully it will be better going forward.”
The all-Leinster front row of Andrew Porter, Kelleher and Furlong has not started a Test together since the 2022 Guinness Six Nations. It was that fateful day in Paris when Kelleher went off early with a damaged shoulder, which was the start of his injury woes.
Porter will come up against the burly Tameifuna in the scrum, with the pair both listed on the official teamsheet as being able to play at loosehead or tighthead. Pau regular Siegfried Fisi’ihoi was also namechecked by Ireland’s heavy metal-loving powerhouse.
“They have an incredibly experienced front row, Ben Tameifuna and (Siegfried) Fisi’ihoi. They’re incredibly experienced, big boys as well. They pride themselves on physicality and getting physical dominance as well,” commented Porter.
“They’re not just big ball carriers, they have skill and that flair as well in the pack and especially across the back-line. We know exactly how to prepare for it, but it’s just about going out and putting in a performance against an incredibly well-coached team.”