Ronan Kelleher delighted to return from injury with victory over France 

Ronan Kelleher delighted to return from injury with victory over France 

Ronan Kelleher of Ireland after his side's victory in during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and France at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

IRELAND hooker Ronan Kelleher admits 12 months of international injury frustration made Saturday’s stunning Guinness Six Nations success over France “all the sweeter”.

The world’s top-ranked team launched themselves into pole position for championship title glory with a thrilling 32-19 win – their first victory over Les Bleus under head coach Andy Farrell.

Kelleher had not featured at Test level since being forced off in the first half of last year’s 30-24 defeat to Fabien Galthie’s reigning Grand Slam champions in Paris due to a string of fitness issues.

But he produced a key 55-minute cameo in Dublin after first-choice hooker Dan Sheehan was ruled out by a hamstring issue and understudy Rob Herring had his afternoon cut short by a head knock.

“It’s a remarkable environment to come back into and having been out for some time it makes it all the sweeter to get back out there and play again,” said Kelleher. “I’m delighted with how it went.

“The competition is great, there is no step down from first to second or third choice.

“It is a competitive bunch, we’re constantly pushing each other to get better. If you don’t make the standard you won’t be there. That’s pushing us forward all the time.” Kelleher emerged as the natural successor to the retired Rory Best earlier in the Farrell era but has since been overtaken in the pecking order by Leinster team-mate Sheehan.

The 25-year-old was Ireland’s leading try-scorer in 2021, including crossing in the 15-13 home defeat to France in that year’s Six Nations.

Having sustained a shoulder injury in the round-two defeat at Stade de France last February, he subsequently missed the victorious summer tour of New Zealand, before hamstring troubles sidelined him in the autumn and for the opening match of this year’s championship.

A landmark victory over Les Bleus following three successive losses to them means Ireland have now toppled all of world rugby’s major nations during the Farrell era.

“It wouldn’t be as big for us as people outside make it,” Kelleher said of previous failures to beat the French.

“We had chances to win the games in the past. Certain things we didn’t get right in those games.

“Even though we have lots of learnings, enough stuff went right for us to get the win.”

Meanwhile, Ireland U20s match-winner Sam Prendergast said the strong sense of unity within their squad was a major factor behind a thrilling 33-31 success for the defending champions over France in the Six Nations Championship at Musgrave Park on Friday evening.

With tries from Paddy McCarthy and Hugh Gavin supplementing the reliable place-kicking of Prendergast, Ireland were 23-14 in front during the early stages of the second half and very much on course for another win to back up last week’s bonus point triumph over Wales. 

A resolute France subsequently found themselves in the ascendancy on a couple of occasions, but Prendergast’s nerveless penalty on 78 minutes ultimately keeps the Irish in the reckoning for back-to-back Grand Slams at this grade.

The hosts had to overcome considerable adversity on their way to victory with forwards George Hadden and Diarmuid Mangan both being sent to the sin-bin in a frantic second half of action. 

Prendergast had also missed a long-range effort when Ireland were a single point in arrears, before the Kildare native eventually struck the deciding score of the game.

“I missed the first one obviously, probably shouldn’t have gone for it. A little bit nervous, but we knew we’d get another opportunity and luckily we did. Thankfully I was able to take it,” Prendergast remarked to RTÉ Sport after the game.

“We’ve really been building as a group. Even just off the field as a tight group. I think it showed there at the end, we just dug in. Even when we had 13 men we dug in. 

"Some big defence sets on our own line there against the wind. It was just amazing to get the win.

“We knew after last week we weren’t where we needed to be. We started really slow. We weren’t thinking about the Championship. 

"We were just really excited.” 

For Prendergast and many others, this was their first experience of playing at Musgrave for the Ireland U20s in a competitive game. 

The crowd at the Leeside venue - which included Prendergast's brother Cian, the Connacht lock who made his senior international debut last November - drove the Irish on throughout the contest and Richie Murphy’s charges ultimately revelled in the Cork atmosphere despite some pre-game jitters.

“This was sold out early in the week. We knew we were going to be playing in a sold out Musgrave. 

"It seems since it has moved down to here that it has been a sell-out every time there’s a game here. It’s just unbelievable. Even in the warm-up, we all got a bit shook by it, but we managed to get through it. It was an unbelievable crowd,” Prendergast added.

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