The Ireland hooker reflects on a busy 2021 with RW’s Tom English

Ronan Kelleher on Leinster, Lions and LeBron James

​The pressure was unreal, he says. Even the memory of it makes him gulp, that clear recollection of panic as he looked around and saw the cameras staring back at him, that scary sensation as he realised how many people had eyes on him that day.

“Without doubt the most frightening thing I have ever done,” says Ronan Kelleher, the 23-year-old Leinster and Ireland hooker who was brought along as cover on the British & Irish Lions tour in the summer, a nod from Warren Gatland and his coaches that told you something about his growing reputation.

So, in that moment of truth, he stepped up and tried his best to disguise his fear, but there was just no hiding it. His technique let him down. Excruciating. He had played in front of 50,000 expectant Irish fans at the Aviva and in front of 80,000 largely England fans at Twickenham. He had thrown into lineouts under the most intense heat in Test and European rugby for country and club, but this was harder. “This was different. Way, way different.”

He talks about it with a dramatic flourish. The Lions golf day in Jersey, just before the departure for South Africa. So on the first tee that day in Jersey, in the company of Josh Adams, Zander Fagerson and Taulupe Faletau, he drew back the driver and topped his shot ten metres in front of him. The cameraman ran to his ball, nestling in the grass close to the ladies’ tee, and then panned back to him in his mortified state.

Ronan Kelleher during the Lions golf day in Jersey (Inpho)

The crowd erupted. All 50 of them on the gantry above. He says with absolute sincerity that he’d have rathered a lineout throw on his own 5m line in the dying minutes of a tight Test match than have people watching him on that first tee. “And I’m not the only one. Conor Murray and Tadhg Beirne were ahead of us and when they saw people were heading for the gantry they ran ahead and hit their shots before anybody was watching.

“We were the ones with the audience. The only thing that saved me was that Josh did the exact same thing. Rugby is less stressful. At least you know what you’re supposed to be doing in rugby.”

He’s a convert now. Sick of hearing the stories of all these terrific golfers at Leinster – Hugo Keenan, Jordan Larmour, Johnny Sexton and more – he made a pact with another innocent, Caelan Doris: if you can’t beat them, join them. “I’m hooked on golf now but it’s a killer. Years of pain await me.”

Years of rugby await him, too. At his age, and with his explosive talent, a decent injury-free run (if such a thing exists) will surely see him one day hit the podium as one of Ireland’s most-capped hookers. He has 13 caps under his belt, and has Rob Herring as his direct rival, but Herring is 31 years old, eight years his senior.

The mantle may have passed already in any case. Kelleher started the last two games Ireland played. He scored four tries in one of them, against the USA. Only four men’s players in history have scored four tries in a Test for Ireland. Keith Wood is one. Those are not bad footsteps to be following in.

To the summer with the Lions. He had mild hope but zero expectation of making the original squad. The thing that surprised him wasn’t missing out, it was the call he received from Gatland asking if he’d be up for coming along as training cover for Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie when the squad first assembled in Jersey.

He was asked despite starting only one Six Nations game while sitting on the bench for four others in 2021 and three others in 2020. Herring had started nine of the ten, but the young Leinster hooker was asked and he lapped up the opportunity. He’d only made his Leinster debut in February 2019 and even then the notion of Ireland caps or a peripheral role as a Lions tourist seemed outlandish to him.

But here it all was. He even flew out to South Africa later in the tour, after those July Tests with Ireland, to provide extra cover at hooker. “I actually travelled out with Alun Wyn Jones after he’d recovered from injury. We were isolating together for the first five days and it was fantastic to be around him, to see how professional he is and how he gets his body right for games.

“I have an interest in basketball or, to be more precise, I have an interest in LeBron James because he’s another elite sportsman that just goes on and on at the top level and I’m fascinated to know how they do it. I’ve read about LeBron investing millions of dollars into his own body every year. He has his own masseuse staff, his own dieticians, his own strength and conditioning, he has his own fitness rooms at home, he spends fortunes on getting himself right. He has the money to do it, in fairness.

“Alun Wyn was really good with me when I picked his brains. Then Ken (Owens) and Jamie and Luke were really helpful in terms of giving me little intricacies and fine detail of being a hooker. They let me in on a lot of bits and pieces. I learnt so much from them. I was chomping at the bit every day. I didn’t feel out of my depth at all. It was just a great bunch of guys with not a single bad egg. I wasn’t ever going to play but I felt like I belonged.”

Being a former hooker himself, Gatland recognised a good one when he saw one – and Kelleher, with his pace and skill and carrying prowess and lust for physicality, is very, very good, scarily so for one so young. Of the 14 hookers who appeared in this year’s Six Nations only Italy’s Gianmarco Lucchesi is younger. Owens is 11 years older. Kelleher is going to be around for a long time.

He started his rugby with Bective in Dublin and carried it on in school, at the now famous St Michael’s where his dad is principal and where his mum teaches. It’s a hotbed of rugby talent, many of whom have gone on to play for Leinster and Ireland. His dad is from Cork, but this was a kid who grew up revelling in the heroes of the RDS and the old Lansdowne Road.

“A very good friend of mine had season tickets for Leinster, right on the 22 in the Anglesea Stand at the RDS and every second week we went there. I was watching some of the same players that I’m playing with now, which is still surreal. Church (Cian Healy), Johnny (Sexton), Dev (Toner) and other guys. I’m convinced that Dev will play until he’s 50 and he’ll still be running lineouts.

“I grew up in a period of great success for Leinster when they were winning European Cups. My earliest memories are of them contending for and then winning big trophies. I don’t really remember much before that. So that was instilled in us as we came into the system. We all just wanted to replicate what the other guys had done and because we were all Leinster fans, home-grown and passionate, we saw Leinster as the only place we’d ever want to be.

“That closeness is one of our strengths. Other clubs have massive financial resources to buy in world-class players from abroad, but we see that closeness as one of our great strengths. We were reared on Leinster. We were fans from day one.”

For the young Kelleher, Healy was the man. He was nine when the prop made his Leinster debut and 11 when he won his first cap. The legend went before him. “I loved watching him, the physicality of the guy, the absolute power. The way he played the game was savage.

“I heard these stories that when he was in sixth year in school he’d go down to a beach with his dad and pull his father’s car along the sand with some sort of harness on him. It was folklore in St Michael’s. Nobody knew if it was true or not, but we’d talk about it. I asked him about it one day. He said, ‘Yeah, it’s true’. Brilliant. I’m not sure I’d get away with it. The strength and conditioning might have moved on a bit since then.”

Kelleher has not long finished a degree in commerce and given that both of his parents are educationalists there’s talk about a Masters at some point. He might wait a while for that because rugby is his life now – and the opportunities are opening up.

After the bruising loss to La Rochelle in the semi-final of last year’s Champions Cup he says he has unfinished business in that competition. That loss, he stresses, was the biggest disappointment of his young life. “I’d love to have that moment back.” It’s an almost plaintive cry.

He doesn’t have any truck with the idea that the monied clubs are favourites to win the big prizes, not when the talent flow at Leinster is so rapid. As for Ireland, he says that a coming generation are adding ballast to the notion that this is a squad that can do something special. In the two summer Test victories over Japan and the USA, another nine players won their first cap. This autumn they play Japan, New Zealand and Argentina in Dublin.

You ask him for the day he was at his happiest on a rugby field and he doesn’t pick one, he picks three. Winning a Junior Cup in school with his mates, among them James Ryan and Max Deegan, was one. His first cap, against Scotland in 2020, was another.

The last one is the best one, he says. “My brother, Cian, played for Leinster and now plays for Ealing, but when we played our first European Cup game together it was very special. It was against Northampton last season (Leinster won). Great for us and great for the family. That was a proud one. The stadium was empty but it didn’t matter. You don’t forget those moments.”

You sense that there are many more moments ahead that he won’t forget in a hurry. For Kelleher, this story is only just beginning.

This article originally appeared in Rugby World’s November 2021 edition.

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