Rónan Kelleher: ‘The lineout clicked last weekend, but there was no major revamp’

With 13 secured balls from 13 throws by Ireland, France had nothing they could land on Ireland to knock them out of stride

The wonder is if Ireland possessed the Six Nations lineout they had against France in Marseille available to them throughout the Rugby World Cup, what would everybody be talking about now?

The dramatic contrast between last October and last week was eye-watering as the supreme efficiency and attacking threat of the Irish set piece played a standout cameo role in the overall record points win in Stade Vélodrome.

With 13 secured balls from 13 throws by the two Irish hookers, Dan Sheehan and later Rónan Kelleher, France had nothing they could land on Ireland to knock them out of stride. Nor were there any self-inflicted wounds. Peter O’Mahony, Tadhg Beirne and deep into the match Ryan Baird took one from Kelleher metres from the French line and the pack duly rolled the ball and hooker over.

“We didn’t change much,” says Kelleher. “We’re constantly trying to tweak and fine-tune our individual drills. There was no revamp or anything. It was just keep doing what we’re doing. In the World Cup, it didn’t go... it wasn’t all bad like... it went all right, it was just little, tiny bits and pieces here and there which obviously didn’t click on the day. But it’s nothing major, no revamp or anything, very much just tweaks.


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“For example, the lineout lift and maybe the lineout throw, it’s all about the timing and it clicked last weekend. But there was no major revamp, more just keep doing what we were doing.”

Ireland was ranked 14th for their lineout coming out of the World Cup, which makes the stark improvement all the sweeter for Andy Farrell and Paul O’Connell. Italy, who face Ireland on Sunday, are certain to throw some junk and try to disrupt. All five Irish tries in Marseille began at lineouts. Kelleher came on after 63 minutes for Sheehan. For 20 minutes he had a close-up view.

We were still very confident in our lineout, our drill, in what we were doing, it wasn’t anything major

“I suppose teams were looking at our game and trying to figure out where they could get a bit of access,” he says. “We came up against some good lineout D [defence] as well, in terms of South Africa. They have a brilliant lineout defence. Scotland have a good lineout defence as well. So, I suppose there wasn’t any major revamp or anything like that, there wasn’t any real scare for us. We were still very confident in our lineout, our drill, in what we were doing, it wasn’t anything major.”

Former Irish lock O’Connell is the principal architect on the training pitch with players calling the plays to make in certain areas of the pitch. A highly technical part of the game, even the throwing of the ball, which seems simple, is a detailed part of the sequence. Composure after tackling and running hard for 10 minutes is part of it, but at an elementary level, even how the hooker should grip the ball is mesmerising in its detail.

From a 2017 coaching magazine, correct hand positions for a right-handed thrower are the first considerations of the hooker. Michael Jackson’s moonwalk seems less complex.

“Have ‘Gilbert’ on top [seam at two, four, six and eight o’clock]. Right hand towards back of ball, fingers over top of seam, thumb relaxed. Left hand slightly forward of right, fingers relaxed, thumb under ball. To throw, snap elbows and roll hands out. Hands are together, pointing at the target,” it instructs.

Lifting and catching have their own suite of set-ups and logistics, and with the timing of throwing and catching, it’s a simple action but with many moving parts.

“It would be predominantly Paulie [O’Connell] alongside all of the lineout leaders really,” says Kelleher. “Everyone would have their say and yeah, they’d be putting a plan together each week, obviously reviewing the opposition and putting their plan together. Fogs [John Fogarty] does the throwing with us. He does it here and obviously Robin McBryde does it at Leinster.”

The flip side of last week’s success is whether Ireland may be over-reliant on the set piece and what it can bring the team when it is strong. In the context of the win, it might seem like a mean-spirited take and Kelleher doesn’t see it like that.

“I don’t think we are [over-reliant], to be honest,” he says. “I wouldn’t have put that much thought into it, but I don’t think so. I think our game is pretty well-rounded. If you look back at the last Six Nations, I don’t know the exact stats, but I can definitely picture one or two tries that came from goal-line dropouts and stuff like that. So, no, I don’t think we’re over-reliant on the lineout, no.”

For now, Kelleher’s personal goals revolve around putting Sheehan under pressure and there is a convoluted psychology to that. He wants the number two shirt and respects the player who is in possession. Playing a supporting role and aggressively challenging at the same time is a fine line to walk. Maybe it’s easier when the person is a Leinster teammate.

“Yeah, a bit,” he says a little unconvincingly. “Dan has obviously been on fire this season and for much of last year as well. It’s up to the rest of us to keep that competition going and keep competing for that place.”

Last Friday’s set piece is where that attitude can get you.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times