Ireland fullback Hugo Keenan. Dan Sheridan/INPHO
World Class

Hugo Keenan couldn't be more deserving of his IRFU central contract

The 26-year-old has had an impressive rise to become a key player for Leinster and Ireland.

BECAUSE HUGO KEENAN does things with such a minimum of fuss, you sometimes don’t realise just how big a potential mess he has cleaned up.

Take the 28th minute in Dublin last weekend. Ireland have just gone 19-13 ahead through Andrew Porter’s try.

They catch the restart but hearts are suddenly in mouths when James Lowe trips just before Tadhg Beirne throws a no-look sweep pass out the back. France hare towards the bobbling ball… but Keenan swoops to rescue possession.


Typically, Keenan is alert to the possible danger as Lowe trips. He’s brave in accelerating to the ball and putting himself in front of France lock Thibaud Flament to allow Ireland to regather themselves.

This is the kind of awareness that Keenan brings to his work in the backfield too, covering the opposition kicking game calmly and very often dissuading them from kicking in the first place due to his strong positioning.

When teams look in behind Ireland, Keenan invariably covers well. Take this effort in the 67th minute on Saturday as France try to create a game-changing score by chipping in behind.


Keenan has lots of ground to cover but does so at pace, reacts well to a bad bounce, then gets a long placement of the ball after being tackled. Again, no fuss, job done.

In the instance below, Keenan makes a firm tackle on Antoine Dupont after the French scrum-half breaks off a Flament offload in midfield.


This is an example of the basics done well as Keenan closes up assertively on Dupont. Keenan shuts down the space as soon as possible and makes a strong tackle on his left shoulder. Dupont does still get an offload away but Keenan has bought his team time to track back.

While he covered France’s kicks well, Keenan also contributed strongly to Ireland’s efforts with the boot as he made seven kicks, including this crucial 50:22 kick in the second half. 


Keenan’s kicks also included one grubber down the right in the second half that nearly resulted in an Ireland try, only for Dupont to produce a stunning tackle on Mack Hansen.

Below, we see Keenan’s delicate, intelligent kick.


To be so accurate while moving at high speed is impressive from Keenan and he follows up to force the ball loose for Hansen, only for the Ireland wing to be denied by Dupont.

Keenan’s influence on the game is certainly not limited to kicking, defending, and cleaning up.

His influence in Ireland’s attack continues to grow and he ran a superbly-timed line for his try last weekend, accelerating onto the ball late enough to avoid giving the French cues but just about early enough to avoid the traffic in front of him.


Keenan is much more than just a strike runner, however.

He has become increasingly comfortable as a distributor for Ireland and Leinster, taking pressure off the out-halves in both teams by sometimes stepping up as a first receiver.

He is also adept at operating in behind pods of forwards and making passes from that position, as for Lowe’s try against the French.


In the example above, Keenan moves in behind Peter O’Mahony to accept a short sweep pass and then moves the ball out the back of James Ryan to Garry Ringrose, whose longer pass sends Lowe hurtling for the left corner.

The list of Keenan’s impressive involvements goes on. He is usually not too far from the action, even if he’s influencing it in subtle ways off the ball. The 26-year-old’s speed, work-rate, and fitness are exceptional even by the standards of Test rugby. 

So it’s clear why Keenan is now on a three-year central IRFU contract

Many of the attributes above were honed while playing 7s rugby for Ireland between 2017 and 2019, when he was a key player for the team as they developed towards their current status as a core team on the World Series. Keenan was brilliant in the seven-man code.

His rise towards being a key figure for Leinster and Ireland has been impressive. Remember that back in school at Blackrock College, Keenan was the captain of the D team at one stage. As late as fourth year, he was a sub for the social team.

It was only in his final year of school that he made the first team, helping Blackrock to their 2014 Leinster Schools Senior Cup success. He scored a try in the final but the likes of Joey Carbery, Nick Timoney, and Caelan Doris were the more obvious stars at that stage.

Keenan spent a bit of time in that post-school, Leinster sub-academy purgatory where it’s not that clear if a player will make it, but he stuck in there. In 2016, he was in the Ireland U20s team that reached a World Cup final but again, others stole the limelight – James Ryan, Andrew Porter, and Jacob Stockdale advancing straight into the senior Ireland squad the following year to be capped.

hugo-keenan-celebrates-scoring-their-first-try Keenan scores against France. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Instead, Keenan was integrated into the 7s set-up and he speaks effusively about its importance in developing his core skills like tackling and passing. 

But 15s rugby was where he had his biggest ambitions and the 2019/20 season was a breakthrough campaign for him. By then, Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster knew there was something special about this unflashy, selfless, calm fullback. He made 12 starts that season and hasn’t looked back.

When Ireland returned from the Covid-enforced break in 2020, Andy Farrell couldn’t overlook him. It seems strange now that four of Keenan’s first six caps for Ireland came on the wing, but he has locked down the number 15 shirt since the start of the 2021 Six Nations. In truth, no one is close to challenging him right now.

No one else has played more Test minutes under Farrell than Keenan, who has racked up a whopping 2,101 minutes of action since his debut against Italy in 2020.

In that sense, Keenan couldn’t be any more deserving of being bumped up onto a lucrative central contract. The unassuming 26-year-old is one of the best in the world.

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