In Ireland, it’s normally the No 10s who get tongues wagging. Perhaps it’s a legacy of the Ward v Campbell saga, but we relish a battle for the out-half jersey more than most.
he game has changed. Sure, a realistic challenge to Johnny Sexton would fill plenty of column inches but, in 2022, it is a pair of hookers who are gearing up for a selection battle that could define the era in Irish rugby.
Nineteen years after Keith Wood bowed out after leading Ireland at the 2003 World Cup, the country now has two hookers who have the potential to come closest to the former World Player of the Year in terms of dynamism and ball-playing ability.
Both play for Leinster. Both are 23. Ireland internationals Rónan Kelleher and Dan Sheehan look capable of dominating the hooker caps for the next decade for club and country if they can stay clear of injury.
Kelleher was the 14th hooker capped by Ireland since Wood retired, Sheehan the 15th.
There have been some excellent players in the intervening years, but Shane Byrne was Ireland’s last Test Lions hooker in 2005. Jerry Flannery was in with a great shot in 2009, but injury cut him down.
Rory Best dominated the jersey for the decade after his rival retired, but for all his leadership, work-rate and fine throwing technique, he was never a world-class operator.
Evidently, the IRFU saw No 2 as a problem position, recruiting more ‘project’ hookers than any other position.
Ultimately, only Richardt Strauss made the grade.
Under Andy Farrell, Strauss’s fellow South African Rob Herring was first-choice for the first year. Qualified through his grandparents, the Ulster stalwart was a like-for-like replacement for Best.
He offered hard work, good set-piece and ruck and maul work, but entire games would pass by without him touching the ball.
In reality, although he never let the team down, he was holding the fort for the next generation.
Two moments this season sum up what Leo Cullen and Farrell have on their hands now.
In October, Kelleher was picked to play against Glasgow Warriors and seven minutes in he scored the kind of try we simply don’t associate with players in his position.
Loitering with intent on the right wing, Adam Byrne draws the covering defender and finds Kelleher on his shoulder. The hooker brushes off his opposite number Jonny Matthews, shapes to kick and then steps inside the full-back Ross Thompson and powers through winger Rufus McClean’s tackle.
It was more akin to a James Lowe finish than what we expect from someone wearing the No 2 on his shirt and a marker of what the young Dubliner could do.
If Kelleher thought he had the Leinster try of the season competition locked down, his rival had other ideas.
Against Connacht last month, Sheehan took Harry Byrne’s pass in a remarkably similar position on the right touchline. He’d one less defender to beat, but my did he do it well, beating winger Mack Hansen all ends up before outpacing the man he replaced in the Ireland squad, Dave Heffernan, to the line.
Sheehan has scored seven tries in his eight games this season including his first international score when he replaced Kelleher off the bench in the win over Argentina.
A week earlier, Kelleher powered over for a crucial try in the win over New Zealand, one of five scores this season.
Of course, in the modern game hookers tend to pick up a couple of scores each campaign from the back of the maul.
To get into that position, they must first find their man and, while lineout statistics are not freely available, there’s a sense that both young men are able to provide security out of touch.
In the scrum, Kelleher has real power but Sheehan’s unusual body-shape – at 6ft, 3ins he is tall for a hooker but has a density that allows him to thrive in contact – allows him to cause problems for opponents.
From a career trajectory point of view, Kelleher has come through the front door while his rival has taken a more circuitous route.
Part of the conveyor belt of talent at St Michael’s where his father is principal and his older brother Cian made the leap to professionalism, Kelleher was mapped from a long way out and made his senior debut at 19.
Being in the same age-group as Kelleher held Sheehan back to a degree, but while he missed out on the 2018 U-20 Six Nations squad, he knuckled down while at Trinity and impressed for their All-Ireland League team before joining Lansdowne.
It was impossible to ignore the ball-carrying athleticism on display and soon the teenager, whose stint in Romania as a teenager meant he was something of a late developer, was catching up to Kelleher.
Now, they are bona fide rivals.
Today, against Montpellier, Kelleher gets the nod which is an indication of his place in the pecking order after getting a head-start. A Lions tourist last summer, he scored four tries in Ireland’s win over the United States and then backed it up by helping to take the All Blacks’ scalp.
The jersey is his to lose.
There are those who argue that Sheehan should make a move to secure more game-time.
Munster offered him that chance, but he has opted to stay and compete.
As a hooker, he knows that even when he’s on the bench he’ll likely get at least half an hour and as he grows in experience it is likely that Leinster will begin to rotate players more heavily.
“I suppose that’s kind of the perks of the front-row,” team-mate Andrew Porter explained.
“It’s a nice position to be in, in terms of your game-time. You’re managed if you’re a starter and you’re always getting your minutes if you’re coming off the bench.
“You can see how they’re playing. They’re incredible around the park, as you can see; they’ve got pace, they’ve got strength. It’s incredible and they’re only two young lads.
“They’re incredible lads off the pitch – always willing to learn, always helping each other out. It’s not like they’re trying to get one up on each other, although that’s what they’re trying to do for selection.
“You love playing with those type of people. They’re pushing each other for the No 2 spot so it’s something that’s really driving their own performances.”
Where can they go from here?
Speak to those who know them and it is clear that these are two quietly driven young men who have a passion for the game and a focus for getting better.
Whether it’s doing extras away from the training pitch or living life the professional way, there’s a real sense that these two players whose rise will continue undeterred.
They’re young, talented and driven and the presence of one will keep the other on his toes.
“They’re going to be at each other for a few years to come,” Leinster forwards coach Robin McBryde said.
“There is going to be no respite or room to relax or take your foot off the pedal. It’s going to be nip and tuck between the two of them and I think it’s going to be great to watch them in battle both nationally and here in Leinster as well.”
Bring it on.
Twin threat: How they compare
Rónan Kelleher Dan Sheehan
Age: 23 23
Height: 6ft/1.83m 6ft 3ins/1.91m
Weight: 16st, 6lbs / 105kg 17st, 5lbs / 110.91kg
Caps (points): 30 (65) 19 (10)
(points): 16 (30) 2 (5)
Played 8 8
Tries 5 7
Carries per minute: 0.1 0.2
Metres per carry: 3.9m 3.5m
Passes: 23 14
Offloads: 2 5
Defenders beaten: 12 19
Clean breaks: 3 1
Tackle success: 96% 96%
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