Friday 17 January 2020

Kelleher is struggling to play catch-up with Leinster

BATTLE: Cian Kelleher. Photo: Sportsfile
BATTLE: Cian Kelleher. Photo: Sportsfile

The kid swallowed a high ball inside his own half, picked up speed from a standing start, skipped past three defenders, to ghost home for a Try of the Season candidate.


No, this isn't a re-enactment of Jordan Larmour's solo try against Munster at Thomond Park in January 2018.

It is a crystal clear memory (backed up by youtube) of Cian Kelleher's first and, to date, only try for Leinster in February 2016. One year later, when Kelleher was tempted away to Connacht on a two-year deal, Leinster saw it as a direct attack on their Academy.

It is one thing to chase down a mature man skirting the fringes of the first team; another to steal away a rising star.

At the time, Pat Lam was making waves on the west coast and the lure of guaranteed first-team action, a system well-suited to back-three attackers and, presumably, a considerable bump in pay swayed Kelleher.

"Passing up on an offer of a development contract with Leinster was obviously a difficult decision for Cian," noted Lam back then.

"But it reflects an ambition and hunger for opportunity that not only Connacht rugby, but everyone involved in Irish rugby is looking for."

This would have come as sweet music to the ears of the IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora, a man inclined to spread the talent across the four provinces rather than have Leinster horde all their goods until ready to be drip-fed into the PRO14 market.

The reaction of Lam to poaching one of Leinster's blue-chip boys reinforced that message loud and clear.

At Connacht, Kelleher made 54 appearances and delivered 14 tries in a positive growth period, jostling for game time against the likes of Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy.

COMPETITION: McFadden. Photo: Sportsfile
COMPETITION: McFadden. Photo: Sportsfile

Two years later, he revealed his decision to move back home to Dublin.

It has not been a triumphant return. Not just yet.

With the Ireland squad away in Carton House and Japan all the way through to last month, the slate was wiped clean for Kelleher to make a statement.

Unfortunately, what he found was Hugo Keenan chosen to fill the full-back space left by Rob Kearney and Jordan Larmour, with Jimmy O'Brien in the hat too.

In truth, Kelleher has probably grown into more of a wing than a full-back and had James Lowe, Fergus McFadden, Adam Byrne and Barry Daly for company.

After the World Cup cut, Dave Kearney returned to the fold looking for somewhere to use his pre-season gains.

Kelleher has seen a very limited 96 minutes, his first start coming in round four of the PRO14 League in that turgid 3-0 win in Zebre.

The following week, he was good for 16 minutes off the bench against the Dragons on his first appearance for Leinster at the RDS in over three-and-a-half years.

It is a long way short of what he would have wanted when he agreed to come home from Connacht.

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