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Rónan Kelleher: ‘There’s a lot of unfinished business here at Leinster’

Far from jaded after his exertions with Ireland, the Leinster hooker is looking forward to getting back in action - and on the trophy trail - with his province

Rónan Kelleher was introduced around the hour mark in all five of Ireland’s Six Nations games and left an imprint each time on both sides of the ball, be it with his direct carrying or big tackles, as well as his energy around the pitch. As replacements go, the 26-year-old hooker had a very impactful campaign, in every sense.

So whatever frustrations there may have been about not starting, Kelleher reflects positively on the 2024 Six Nations, both with regard to what Ireland achieved and his contribution.

He is reluctant to pick a favourite among Ireland’s five games but, after thinking about it, says: “I suppose maybe the France game over in Marseilles, that was a big win. It was the first time I’d beaten them over there. That was class. Probably that game really. It was a big win for that group.”

While that is telling, and most Irish supporters would agree that Ireland’s high point was their opening night performance, it still seems incredible that retaining the title was something of an anticlimax.

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“It’s a great place to be, I suppose,” Kelleher says of this state of affairs. “I can’t complain really. Obviously, there was a little bit of disappointment after the England game, but for us we still managed to get it done with the back-to-back championships. It shows the health of Irish rugby that there was an air of disappointment that it wasn’t back-to-back Grand Slams, but that’s only a positive thing. We’re obviously in a very good place.”

Playing in all five of Ireland’s Six Nations games as a replacement was just as taxing mentally, if not physically, as starting all of them.

“It’s still quite full on,” he says. “It is completely different though. You know you can be called upon at any time. When you’re warming up, you’re constantly trying to get a second wind.

“Then you’re trying to keep invested in the game as well, trying to figure out: ‘What have we ran already? What have we done?’ It is a different challenge than when you’re starting and it was tough getting that second wind in a game, but it was good. I don’t really know how to describe it,” he concludes, lightheartedly.

At face value, it looks a tall order for Leinster, as the Irish squad’s bulk suppliers, to reset their sights on the URC with just a week’s break after retaining the Six Nations. This seems especially true given the demands of the World Cup, when Kelleher also played all five of Ireland’s games, including against Tonga and South Africa.

“It’s very easy, to be honest,” counters Kelleher. “A lot of us haven’t won in Europe and it has been obviously a few years now since we won the URC. We know there is a lot of unfinished business here, so everyone is chomping at the bit to get back in. Everyone is really excited and bouncing back into training. It’s good to get everyone back together.”

If a change is indeed as good as a rest, one imagines the prospect of the second-placed Bulls, four points behind Leinster, coming to the RDS this Friday (kick-off 7.35pm) will serve to sharpen their focus as well.

“Increased competition or heightened competition really pushes everyone on,” is how Kelleher describes it. “You just know that there’s no really easy games, it’s all just flat out. It will be just as intense as a European game or an international game when you come up against those big South African teams. They’ve a stack of internationals as well. It’s a different challenge than the past, but it’s a really exciting one.”

After coming up short in home semi-finals against the Bulls at the RDS two seasons ago and Munster at the Aviva last season, Kelleher was not inclined to watch either final. But while it might seem reasonable to presume those defeats have made the URC a more prized title, Kelleher disagrees.

“I don’t think it’s a bigger carrot because each year was highly sought after. We wanted to win two each year. I think because we haven’t won in the last two years, there is just that extra bit of motivation maybe. We know we didn’t put in our best performances in those semi-finals, but it’s just about making sure we’re there or thereabouts in the run-in of the season.

To that end, Leo Cullen has clearly stressed the importance of Friday’s game in the context of Leinster pursuing top place in the table at the end of the regular season and, with that, the potential of a home quarter-final followed by a semi-final and final in Croke Park.

When the URC resumes after the break for the Champions Cup Round of 16 and the quarter-finals, the Bulls’ run-in features four home games against Munster, Ospreys, Warriors and Benetton, before facing the Sharks away.

Three of Leinster’s last five games are away, beginning with the Lions and the Stormers (when they are likely to be short of full-strength), followed by the Ospreys (home), Ulster (away) and Connacht (home).

“This weekend is massive because they’re sitting four points behind us with a load of home games to come,” says Kelleher. “We know this is a massive opportunity. It’s a big eight-point, 10-point swing, it could be, in the table. It’s really important for us.”