Ronan Kelleher had his priorities straight after Ireland beat the All Blacks 1 month ago

Ronan Kelleher had his priorities straight after Ireland beat the All Blacks

"It was still a bit disappointing that I didn't get a run-out."

As much as he loved being part of the British & Irish Lions squad [twice] in the summer, you can easily read that Ronan Kelleher has a couple of gnawing regrets.

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March to July 2021 were a tumble dryer of emotions for the Leinster hooker. He helped Ireland finish the Six Nations on a high, won the PRO14 with Leinster, was backed for the Lions squad, felt Champions Cup agony, missed out on the Lions squad, was called in to train with Warren Gatland's side in Jersey, returned to Ireland to score four tries in a single Test match [against USA] then was called up as a fully-fledged Lions player for the end of the tour.

The only thing missing was getting out onto the pitch in that famous red of the Lions.

"It was a great experience," Kelleher tells us. "It was still a bit disappointing that I didn't get a run-out, or a bit of a game, but, all the same, it was still a big experience and I loved every second of it - getting out there with a great bunch of lads, backroom team and management.

"It was a brilliant opportunity to learn off some of the best in the world. Having the Irish lads in camp, to help get me through it, was great too. That Jersey week was also beneficial for when I went over a second time [to South Africa]. I wasn't having to learn everything or go around introducing myself to every one."

Beneficial and then some. Spurred on by mixing it with the Lions, the 23-year-old launched into this season and seized Ireland's No.2 jersey. Rob Herring had been the man in possession after the Six Nations, but there is no argument now that Kelleher is the best we have got.

Ronan Kelleher Ronan Kelleher has made 16 Test appearances for Ireland since his debut in February 2020. (Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan)

Ronan Kelleher on that All Blacks win

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November saw Andy Farrell go with an all-Leinster front row of Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher and Tadhg Furlong. While Furlong was always a lock for tighthead, Farrell could have selected Cian Healy and Herring to pack down with him and few would have harrumphed too much.

As it was, Porter and Kelleher got the nod. There looks to be no going back, and we mean that in the best possible way.

Ireland no have a front row that is solid at the set-piece and resembling three extra centres when the ball is in play. Japan and Argentina were heavily beaten while New Zealand were completely out-played.

Following that 29-20 win over the All Blacks, while several Ireland players traded stories and jerseys with the Kiwis, Kelleher had his priorities in order.

"The atmosphere in the stadium and the energy it gave us was just incredible," he recalls. "It lifted us when we were blowing. The other thing that stands out was the sense of relief at the final whistle, and the result itself.

"On the pitch, it was good. But when we actually reviewed the game itself, there were still massive learnings from it. There was definitely that risk of us all getting caught up in how big an occasion it was for us. But when we looked at the game itself, we saw there was lots we could work on. That's pretty exciting, that we have that room to grow, ahead of the Six Nations.

"I didn't get a chance to swap jerseys or talk to the lads - like Codie Taylor or Dane Coles. I was getting treatment and then went out to talk to my family, and share the win with them."

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Ronan Kelleher Leinster front row forwards, from left, Andrew Porter, Ed Byrne, Rónan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong, Dan Sheehan and Seán Cronin, with the PRO14 trophy in March 2021. (Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile)

Learning from the best, in Sean Cronin

Asked if All Blacks hookers, and regular try-scorers, Coles and Taylor were players he looks, or looked, up to, Kelleher's rugby role model is much closer to home.

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"They're great players," he says. "Everyone talks about how Dane Coles revolutionised the hooker position but, in my opinion, Sean Cronin was probably doing that before him. He was probably the first person to do it.

"Sean was the first one, really, to show that explosive pace and the flair to actually play the game. He was the first guy in world rugby, in my opinion anyway, to do it.

"You could go back to Keith Wood, obviously, before Sean but, in the modern day, he lead the way. He's been brilliant and it has been great learning off him and James Tracey."

Up next for Kelleher and Leinster are Connacht at The RDS, on Friday, before focus switches to the new Champions Cup season.

Leinster host Bath on December 11 at the Aviva Stadium and Kelleher is hoping to have a big say in how both those games go.

Ronan Kelleher

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Ronan Kelleher was speaking before the start of the 2021/22 Heineken Champions Cup next weekend, which marks the 27th consecutive season Heineken has been a proud partner of European rugby, and the fifth season of the Heineken and Rugby Players Ireland partnership.