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Kelleher Determined For Con’s Class of 2024 To Take ‘Next Step’

Kelleher Determined For Con’s Class of 2024 To Take ‘Next Step’

22-year-old flanker Jack Kelleher is part of a strong set of Cork Constitution forwards, and also made his Ireland Club XV debut earlier this season ©INPHO/Ben Brady

Cork Constitution are intent on spoiling the Terenure College back-to-back party on Sunday (kick-off at 4pm – live on TG4), as they look to bring the Energia All-Ireland League Men’s Division 1A trophy back to Leeside for the first time since 2019.

Tickets for the #EnergiaAIL finals double header are on sale from Ticketmaster.ie – buy now.

Jonny Holland’s charges came out on the right side of a nine-try thriller, winning 40-34 against last season’s runners-up Clontarf at Temple Hill last Saturday.

Former captain Niall Kenneally, John Forde, Ronan O’Sullivan, and the brilliant Matthew Bowen scored their four tries, while talismanic out-half James Taylor had a 17-point contribution from the kicking tee.

Cork Con feature regularly at the business end of the season, but failed to clear the semi-final hurdle in the last two years, losing to the eventual champions on both occasions – Clontarf in 2022, and Terenure twelve months ago.

The Ballintemple-based club is steeped in history, with six All-Ireland League titles already. Another one on Sunday would put them just two behind record holders Shannon, and vice-captain Jack Kelleher confirmed that they always considered themselves contenders again this season.

“We certainly did. An extra year’s experience. A year in the AIL means a lot. You’re playing 18 games, a lot of experience,” he said, speaking at the Energia All-Ireland League finals media launch.

“We’ve a young enough pack, so that extra year to put on maybe a couple of kilos in weight but more experience.

“We had quite a young squad and a couple of new additions this year, and one of the main goals we set out in June was to get the home semi, to push on and take another step and get to the Aviva this year.”

Constitution had to be at their very best to stave off a late comeback from ‘Tarf last weekend. Looking back on that monumental victory, Kelleher acknowledged: “It was absolutely nail-biting I’d say, probably worse to watch it than it was to play in it.

“Yeah, highly contested, each team just throwing punches, throwing shots, and very exciting at the end, just getting out on top.

“It was unbelievable having your friends and family on the sideline. A huge crowd, couldn’t have got a nicer day for it. It’s an unbelievable atmosphere down there.”

The 22-year-old back rower started his rugby journey at Dolphin RFC, at the age of 10, before attending Presentation Brothers College in Cork. After school, he joined UCC where he played for two seasons, making the switch to Cork Con for the start of the 2022/23 campaign.

He represented Munster at age-grade level, earning a spot in the Sub-Academy, while also being part of the Munster PTS (Provincial Talent Squad)/NTS (National Talent Squad) programme.

He was part of the training panel that helped Munster get ready for their Champions Cup game against Wasps in December 2021, when a chunk of the squad was stuck in South Africa due to Covid-19-related issues.

Despite his tender age, Kelleher’s leadership qualities, quickly noticed by the Cork Con management, have really come to the fore. He has previously captained UCC and the Munster Development XV. When asked about being given the role of vice-captain at Con, he was typically modest in his response.

“I don’t know what they see in me, but there are leaders within our group that make my life easy. I’m only the vice to Dave (Hyland), an unbelievable leader as captain for us all season.”

The move from UCC to Cork Con is a road often taken by local players. Comparing the two clubs, Kelleher noted the rich heritage and expectation of success at Con where photos and jerseys of numerous Munster and Ireland legends hang on the walls.

“It’s got two different atmospheres. Coming into Con, you’ve got an older team, especially because my second year at UCC, which was basically my first proper year in the club, we were a really young side, I’d say an average age of 21, if even.

“Then coming up to Con, you’ve lads who have had 10, 12 years playing AIL so you’re learning off those lads. It’s a completely different atmosphere and vibe.

“I suppose in Cork, anyway, the expectation is if you’re playing in Con you should be up there winning and competing most years. So there’s definitely that bit of expectation.”

Everyone has played their part in getting them to this point. The electrifying wing duo of Bowen and Daniel Hurley have scored 23 tries between them.

Playmaker Taylor has been steering the ship nicely, since joining from Division 1B club Highfield, while 24-year-old hooker Billy Scannell, younger brother of Munster players Niall and Rory, is a hard man to stop once he gets up a head of steam.

Kelleher knows they will all have to put in a full 80-minute shift if they are going to dethrone defending champions Terenure College at the home of Irish Rugby.

“We hope we can take the next step and go on to win it. It’s going to be a huge battle because we know how good Terenure are as a defending champions.

“They’re coming off the back of topping the league coming into this final, so we know how big a challenge it is. But I think we certainly can, if we perform, get the win.”

The talented loose forward, who made his Ireland Club international debut against Portugal ‘A’ last month, is relishing the opportunity to play at the Aviva Stadium for the first time.

Heading back home with a winner’s medal around his neck would definitely make the occasion even more special.

“It would mean everything,” he agreed. “We’ve been working so hard since June, it would mean a lot to the club, to the group.

“I know there are a lot of people who have been supporting us for 19 (league) games this season so far, so to win it for them and for the group beyond the (matchday) 23 that will play at the weekend, it’s going to mean a lot.”