Sunday 26 January 2020

Kelleher back to stake his claim for Ireland No 2 jersey

Rónan Kelleher of Leinster
Rónan Kelleher of Leinster
Seán Cronin

It looks like Ronan Kelleher will make it back in time to state his case to Andy Farrell for a first Ireland cap.

The in-form Leinster hooker has not played since cracking a bone in his hand against Northampton Saints at Franklins Gardens on December 7.

It appeared to place in jeopardy his charge from Leinster's fourth-choice hooker at the end of last season to become Ireland's number one for the Six Nations.

However, so far, the rehabilitation has gone to plan and Kelleher is on track to return for Leinster against Benetton in the final round of the Pool phase of Europe on Saturday week.

This would be the perfect lead-in to an Ireland debut against Scotland on February 1.

In hindsight, outside of personal disappointment, the setback couldn't have come at a better time for Kelleher.

He has done so well this season that there was more a risk of tarnishing some of the shine than there was off adding to its' lustre.

Kelleher had started all eight of his caps, mapping anywhere from 52-to-61 minutes, taking in Champions Cup experience against Benetton at the RDS, Lyon in France and Saints at the Gardens.

Over that period, the superb strike-rate of seven tries, including a hat-trick against the Ospreys, were decorations on top of his invaluable set-piece work at scrum and lineout.

He became one of the talked-about players in Ireland, beside John Cooney - one likely to inject the new blood Farrell is surely craving in the coach's first international in charge.

The timing of Kelleher's burst couldn't be any better. Hooker is a position of need for Ireland as Rory Best has hung up his boots and none of Sean Cronin, Niall Scannell or Rob Herring have come through to convince as the clear front-runner, at least for Joe Schmidt.

In fact, it was Kelleher who shot from the pack to claim a place in the Ireland 'stocktake' at Christmas alongside Scannell, Herring and Connacht dark horse Dave Heffernan.

The omission of Cronin could be explained by his recovery from a neck problem suffered at the World Cup, making his return against Ulster on December 20.

Then again, it could have just as much to do with his age (33), if Farrell is planning for the long-term.

Initially, Kelleher benefited from Cronin's attendance in Japan to build on the impression made last season.

His debut came with a starting place against Southern Kings in February, followed by a 27-minute April appearance against Ulster in Belfast.

Even the Champions Cup in France is a level below the Six Nations and there must be cautious expectation around what Kelleher - he will be 22 on January 24 - would deliver against the Scots.

First, Kelleher must come through next week's preparations to leave Leo Cullen with a difficult decision between the veteran Cronin and the coming force.

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