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RUGBYPASS+ How Dan Sheehan became one of the world's best hookers

How Dan Sheehan became one of the world's best hookers
1 month ago

A week before Ireland’s Under 20s jetted off for the junior World Cup, Dan Sheehan dreamed. He was 19 and had everything a young adult could want: caring and supportive parents; a good schooling; a pathway to a decent career via the university course he’d enrolled on.

One thing was missing, though: a break on the rugby field.

Hard as it is to believe now, the Irishman who has just been shortlisted by World Rugby for breakthrough player of the year never made an impact for either Ireland or Leinster at underage. “I got about five minutes against Italy for Leinster (as an Under 18),” noted Sheehan.

Ronan Kelleher, born three months earlier, had passed him by, and so had others, Eoghan Clarke, a hooker now with Jersey Reds, Diarmuid Barron, Munster’s No2.

That left Sheehan as Ireland’s fourth choice at Under 20s level. At Leinster, he was about to be released and unless he got to the junior World Cup, the Dan Sheehan story was closer to ending than it was to starting.

Fate intervened. An injury ruled Kelleher out of that tournament, Sheehan getting the late call. But the real lucky break was still to happen because it was while he was in France, and playing in Ireland’s final game that Sheehan picked up an ankle injury.

Still contracted to Leinster, they were duty bound to continue his rehab, a sliding doors moment that changed his life. That summer of 2018 was spent in UCD, Leinster’s base camp, and by the time autumn came and Sheehan’s contract had expired, he discovered he was still needed. “We could do with another number for training,” the coaches said, surprised that Clarke had opted to leave for Munster.

Thrust accidentally into a high class environment, Sheehan thrived. He wasn’t contracted nor paid but as he continued his degree in Sociology and Social Policy, his real education was coming under the tutelage of Stuart Lancaster and Leo Cullen.

Dan Sheehan
Dan Sheehan is a prolific try scorer for Leinster (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

They liked what they saw, this imposing 17st frame on a 6”3 inch hooker, whose height was unusual for the position but surprisingly useful.

“I have a foot on a lot of hookers when you take the release of the throw into account,” Sheehan said, “which gives me a better angle to hit the hands of a jumper. I am happy with my throw. I have always been comfortable with it.”

To understand why, we need to go back in time a little. Rugby was in his genes, his grandfather playing for Leinster back in the 50s, his father also reaching a decent standard on the Irish club scene.

So it was no surprise to see a young Sheehan arrive at Bective Rangers minis as a five-year-old. That’s where the love of the game started; but it was when it was taken away from him, or rather when work with Heineken took the Sheehan family away to Bucharest, that fate again took a lucky twist.

A lot of young hookers are like quarterbacks – they can throw the ball three-quarters the length of the field but they don’t always have that softness, the pitching wedge to just chip it onto the green. Dan was different, he was able to use the wedge to put a little height on it and drop it near the pin.

Mike Ruddock

A rugby ball travelled with the Sheehan family to Romania and it was within the tight confines of their Bucharest backyard that the Sheehan boys mastered the art of handling it, inventing their own games to keep themselves amused, one of which was spinning a rugby ball over a clothesline.

Three years later they were back in Ireland, enrolled at boarding school, back on a rugby pitch. Yet the impromptu games that Sheehan and his brother played in Bucharest stood to him. This is Mike Ruddock, briefly Sheehan’s at Lansdowne Rugby Club, better known of course as Wales’ grand slam winning coach in 2005.

“A lot of young hookers are like quarterbacks – they can throw the ball three-quarters the length of the field but they don’t always have that softness, the pitching wedge to just chip it onto the green,” Ruddock says. “They use the drive all the time but Dan was different, he was able to use the wedge to put a little height on it and drop it near the pin.”

Soon Leinster were discovering he was capable of many other things. Despite being tall and bulky, he had genuine, top-level speed, as well as a step. That was something Mack Hansen discovered this time last year in a URC game, when Sheehan went in, out and past the Connacht and Ireland wing.

Dan Sheehan
Sheehan was a rookie out in New Zealand but was a big part of Ireland winning the Series out there (Photo By Brendan Moran/Getty Images)

By this stage, he was an Irish international – getting his first cap for Ireland last November even though he had only six starts for Leinster, all in the URC.

They’d fast-tracked him, Lancaster and Cullen. Kelleher may have been the chosen one, plucked from the academy two years earlier, capped by Ireland in February 2020, but Cullen has a good habit of finding room for kids who have a bit of oomph about them.

That was Sheehan. At club level, in the All-Ireland league, he was used to running through players. He tried that on his third cap with Leinster against Ospreys and ‘got creamed’. That was when he discovered the necessity of adding a bit of footwork to his repertoire.

The pay-off wasn’t long arriving. There was a try on his sixth Leinster appearance, another one on his eighth, and then a brace on his ninth. By the end of his first season, he had six tries from 13 appearances, 10 of those as a replacement.

His carrying is explosive; his tackle count consistently high; his darts more Phil Taylor than some addled amateur on Bullseye; his scrummaging improving week by week.

If those stats impressed then, read these ones now. From 34 games in blue, he has scored 22 tries, one when he collected a crossfield kick from Ross Byrne; another a finish from 35 yards. For context, his Ireland team mate, Jamison Gibson-Park, has also scored 22 tries for Leinster. It took Gibson-Park, a scrum-half, 116 caps to reach that total.

So, Ireland have an unexpected try machine emerging from their front-row, someone who caught the world’s attention in February when he was sprung from the bench to enter the Stade de France pitch after Kelleher got injured against France.

These are sink-or-swim moments for any young player. Sheehan swam. A couple of games later, though, he nearly drowned. England, reduced to 14 men, demolished the Ireland scrum and line-out. Sheehan learned a lot about international rugby and himself.

“That was probably my first experience where it was error on error on error,” he says. “I personally didn’t manage it well enough but the learnings were great, to problem solve on the go and not let things reoccur. I’m comfortable now with what I’m doing; I know the areas that I am good at.”

Those are obvious to everyone. His carrying is explosive; his tackle count consistently high; his darts more Phil Taylor than some addled amateur on Bullseye; his scrummaging improving week by week.

Dan Sheehan
Despite being 6ft 3ins, Sheehan has remarkable effective at the nuts and bolts of being a hooker (Photo By Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Ruddock and Lansdowne transformed him, noting that a hooker with his height couldn’t bring his feet too far forward to hook the ball as the scrum would lose all the power in his body.

Instead they attempted to drive the opposition pack backwards whenever the ball came into the scrum rather than wait to be attacked. It worked. Lansdowne got better as a team, Sheehan improving as a scrummager.

Soon others were taking note. Andy Farrell first capped him before others were singing his praises. Munster were allegedly interested; Leinster reacted by getting him to sign a new two-year contract.

When asked in April why he stayed if he was going to be Kelleher’s back-up, he pointed out how much game-time Leinster had already afforded him – 402 minutes in his first season, 687 in his second, 372 thus far in his third.

Sheehan is emotionally robust. All those teenage rejections, when Leinster under 16s, 17s, 18s squads got picked and his name was not there, they served to steel him for what lay ahead.

Plus there was a degree of self-awareness. “I knew it would be naïve to go chasing other clubs or trying to be a superhero somewhere else,” he said.

In any case, he’d spotted how Andrew Porter had been selected by the Lions even though he was Tadhg Furlong’s reserve with Leinster and Ireland, how they had pushed one another each day in training. “If you’re going to look for starts at another club you can get into a very comfortable sort of position where you’re happy where you’re at.”

So, staying put at Leinster wasn’t a sign of weakness but strength.

Here was a kid who believed in himself; whose mental strength his former Leinster sub-academy coach, David Fagan, noted was way above average. Fagan has overseen them all come through at Leinster, the quiet doers like Josh van der Flier, the noisy, brash ones who no one ever heard of because they couldn’t handle the first rejection life threw at them.

Sheehan, though, is emotionally robust. All those teenage rejections, when Leinster under 16s, 17s, 18s squads got picked and his name was not there, they served to steel him for what lay ahead.

Dan Sheehan and Ronan Kelleher
Leinster are lucky to count Sheehan and Rónan Kelleher as Test class hookers in their squad (Photo By Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

And he’s handled every task. At Leinster, he stepped into Kelleher’s shoes. Suddenly he was doing the same thing with Ireland, starting three Six Nations games in 2022, then all three Tests on the successful tour to New Zealand, then starting in the wins over South Africa and Australia.

It was a seamless transition from club to country, but that shouldn’t have been a surprise as his first appearance in an Ireland camp came when 17 other Leinster players were chosen. Was this a step up then or just a step in a different direction where the kitman handed you a green jersey rather than a blue one?

“You kind of evolve from that Leinster style into the Ireland style and it’s the same going back.”

Over the course of 12 months, he has played all the Tier One nations, as well as 2019 World Cup quarter-finalists, Japan, and lost just twice, away to France and in Auckland against New Zealand

He knew he had something to offer, knew the Farrell way of playing was his way, too, attacking out wide, trusting his front row men to attack with ball in hand even in the wide channels.

Over the course of 12 months, he has played all the Tier One nations, as well as 2019 World Cup quarter-finalists, Japan, and lost just twice, away to France and in Auckland against New Zealand, prior to being a key part of Ireland’s historic wins in Dunedin and Wellington.

We haven’t even mentioned yet his appearance in a Champions Cup final, haven’t mentioned that a year ago he wasn’t even the best hooker in his club.

Now he’s viewed as one of the greatest in the world.

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