Frontloading Ireland’s front row talent pool

Paul O’Connell’s presence in Ireland camp got both of Ireland’s contenders for the starting hooker’s role thinking this week.

Frontloading Ireland’s front row talent pool

Paul O’Connell’s presence in Ireland camp got both of Ireland’s contenders for the starting hooker’s role thinking this week.

Ronan Kelleher was reminded of his time with the Ireland U20s two season ago when O’Connell acted as forwards coach to Noel McNamara and imprinted the notion of visualisation on him and one he still uses today.

Rob Herring thought back to the day in June 2014 when he made his debut for Ireland against Argentina in Tucuman. It was the Munster legend who captained the tourists that day and then presented Herring with his shirt after the 23-17 win.

“Enjoy the moment,” said O’Connell, “and hopefully many more will come.” Six years on and he’s not as far down that road as he might have expected. Rory Best’s longevity leaves him earning just an 11th cap tomorrow when he starts against England at Twickenham and he may already be looking over his shoulder.

The expectation is that Ronan Kelleher is the coming man. Not long turned 22, the Leinster candidate has worn blue just 11 times but he was making what appeared to be an unstoppable charge for the No2 Ireland jersey until injury called a temporary halt late last year.

He starts on the bench in Twickenham again havingalready come on against the Scots and Welsh in the opening two rounds of the Six Nations.

Those appearances so soon after his return to fitness display the belief that Andy Farrell and his staff have in the young man but Herring knows the nature of the challenge facing him. He knows he needs to kick on or be overtaken.

“The first two games, setpiece has obviously been my main thing to get right. I have shown a few things around the park but I can bring a bit more involvements in the game. I have been happy with my first two games but I feel there is more in me as well.”

Herring is a dynamic presence and someone who has captained Ulster on numerous occasions.

He is, like Connacht’s Dave Heffernan, the squad’s third hooker, in his late twenties now. Munster’s Niall Scannell is 28 and Leinster’s Sean Cronin 33.

Both are on the outside looking in.

Time is clearly on Kelleher’s side but the flip side to that is the fact that he lacks the well of knowledge Herring has built up over the years when he had to play second fiddle so often to Best, both with club and with country.

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He makes no bones about how it was “extremely frustrating” to sit and stew so often and for so long but that patience is being rewarded now and he claims to have never once given serious thought to moving elsewhere for a more open route to the top.

“I spoke to [Best] a little bit probably about a month-and-a-half ago,” he said. “He was back at Ulster for something. We’ve always had a pretty good relationship. There’s never been any bad blood or animosity, we worked hard together at Ulster, we bounced off each other.

“I haven’t heard from him in the last few weeks, he’s busy with his book I reckon, trying to push that. He’s always been a good person to bounce off.

“He has that level head and experience and it’s something I’ve drawn from over the years and I will continue to do so.” That works both ways now.

Kelleher has had an enviable rugby education. He has migrated through teamsheets from the backs to prop and finally to hooker. Lansdowne and St Michael’s have been two of his preparatory schools before graduating to the Leinster academy. Older brother Cian provided a flight path through to the professional ranks.

Eight tries in nine appearances for Leinster this season have propelled him into the test conversation far faster than anyone could have predicted, not least himself, and he continues to pick up crumbs to sustain that ascent in his first few weeks as international.

“Probably just my little chats with Rob and Dave and just getting a different perspective from what they’re doing with their provinces. That’s been really beneficial to my game, just throwing in and seeing their routine during the week.

“And as well as that just talking to guys like Pete [O’Mahony] and seeing how their mind works and getting through what they do during the week,” he explains. “It’s just about picking up what they are doing as well.”

There will come a day when it will be Kelleher whose experiences are being mined by the up-and-comers and whose jersey is being coveted. Herring’s job is to ensure that is later rather than sooner.

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