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'He said to my dad he thought I'd get 50 caps for Leinster. I thought he was mad'

Hugo Keenan reflects on a remarkable couple of seasons as he prepares for his first Heineken Champions Cup final.

Leinster fullback Hugo Keenan.
Leinster fullback Hugo Keenan.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

IT CAN BE easy to forget just how quickly this has all happened for Hugo Keenan. As he sits down for an early morning chat in UCD on a sunny Wednesday morning, he points out this is only his second time doing media duties in person rather than remotely, the bulk of his senior rugby career taking place during the restrictions enforced by a world health pandemic. 

For a man preparing for his first Heineken Champions Cup final, the fullback seems relaxed about the milestone fixture that lies just around the corner.

Keenan is part of the younger crop of Leinster players yet to play in European club rugby’s showpiece event. In fact, he hasn’t even been to see a Champions Cup final live.

“I was with the (Ireland) Sevens for the 2018 (final, Leinster v Racing) and I was in Bective watching the 2019 one (Leinster v Saracens) with the (Leinster) academy,” he explains. 

“It is the pinnacle of club rugby, and the days you want to be involved in.”

Keenan’s rise to this stage has been remarkable. The fullback went under the radar for the majority of his time playing schools rugby, before emerging as a promising young talent towards the end of his time in Blackrock. Leinster came calling, but even then, Keenan had to wait. He made his senior debut in 2016 but didn’t really break through until the 2019/20 campaign. An Ireland debut quickly followed in October 2020.

Less than two years later, he’s well established as the clear first choice fullback for both club and country. He’s got a Triple Crown and four URC medals to his name. In Marseille next week, he’s hoping to add a Champions Cup medal to that already impressive collection.

Not bad for a late bloomer.

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“No one could have predicted those couple of years, but it was always just looking at the short-term trying to get my development contract, trying to get a senior contract, trying to get my first few starts,” Keenan explains. 

“That was literally all I was worrying about then, trying to get out of the Sevens and become more of a 15s player. That’s all you are concerned about. You can obviously dream, and I’m sure I did as a youngster about playing in these games.

I suppose I’m 25 now, turning 26 (in June), so I spent two years in the sub-academy, three years in the academy, and half of that in the Sevens. It was a long process. I suppose I was never really a superstar growing up or anything like that, like I never thought I’d play for Ireland. I know Peter Smyth (Keenan’s Blackrock head coach) said to my dad that he thought I’d get 50 caps – for Leinster – and I thought he was mad.  

“It hasn’t felt like a long process, because it was what I was expecting, but I’ve enjoyed the last couple of years. This is only the start, I still feel like I haven’t really achieved that much, we have Pro14 titles, but still haven’t got a Grand Slam, or a Champions Cup. These are the main goals for me personally, but also the club and country.”

Keenan plays a key role in Leinster’s system, his ability to read the game resulting in some superb defensive moments, while in attack, he’s developed a handy habit of getting himself across the tryline, his late score against Toulouse last Saturday the most recent example. Taking a short pass off the shoulder from Ross Byrne, Keenan shaped up as if he was preparing to spin a pass out wide, only to cut inside and squeeze past two defenders and dot down Leinster’s fourth try of the evening

hugo-keenan-scores-the-final-try-of-the-game Keenan scored Leinster's fourth try against Toulouse last Saturday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Like so many of Leinster’s scores in Europe this season, it all looked remarkably easy for the boys in blue, the team’s fluidity and cohesion as a unit opening up the time and space to create the opportunity.

“It is a long process, and I don’t think we’re there yet,” Keenan says of the Leinster attack.

“You saw some of it paid of in the Toulouse game but if you look back at the Leicester game (quarter-final), I don’t think we had that fluidity and that cohesiveness. 

I wouldn’t be thinking we’re the finished article after one performance. The week before, to be honest, to our standards it wasn’t good enough, especially in that second half. It’s just getting more consistency to it. Some of the stuff we did at the weekend was good, but La Rochelle will defend differently, they’ll be a bit more aggressive and put that sort of fluidity to the test and that will be half of their gameplan.”

The way Leinster develop their young players is also central to creating that sense of understanding. The province have used 59 players across the URC and Champions Cup this season, that ability to rotate heavily and still produce results now affording them the luxury of keeping key men fresh at the most vital part of the season.

While their opponents in the Champions Cup final, La Rochelle, battle it out in a crucial Top 14 fixture against Stade Francais this weekend, Leinster will make wholesale changes for their URC clash with Munster at the Aviva Stadium, knowing their status as the highest ranked team in the league is already secure.

“It is that strength of depth, the underage setups, the coaching development, but then also when you get into Leinster, yesterday (Monday) there were three XVs, so you’re getting reps even if you’re not in the starting team, you’re playing against the best and learning from the best. You’re always going to get an opportunity.  

Stu (Lancaster) is great at trying to build the habits, and build the ability through training. We’re lucky to get that chance and that’s how these young lads keep progressing and are able to slot in so seamlessly when they come into the team.”

Those days of waiting for an opportunity are behind Keenan now. As one of Leinster’s most valuable on-field assets, it’s all eyes on that 28 May date in Marseille, Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle, and the opportunity to win a fifth Champions Cup title for the province. 

Leinster are a different team to the one that lost to La Rochelle in the semi-final stages last season. Their pack is stronger, their attack more clinical, and crucially, driving forces such as Johnny Sexton, Jamison Gibson-Park and Caelan Doris are fit.

leinster-rugby-and-bearingpoint-metaverse-event Keenan was speaking at an event with BearingPoint, the official innovation partner of Leinster Rugby. Source: Harry Murphy/SPORTSFILE

La Rochelle are a different proposition too, but their lead in has been less smooth. As well as having that massive Stade Francais game to worry about, O’Gara will be without scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow in Marseille while powerful second row Will Skelton is also expected to miss out.

“There was a lot of positive feedback (after the Toulouse game), but there was also some good learnings there,” Keenan adds.

“We probably should have been a bit more clinical in that first 20 minutes. We still found ourselves 7-3 down. There still are a good few points to take from it. Stu never goes too easy in the reviews anyway. But we got two days of reviews in there and parked that now, it’s all looking forward.

“It was sort of new for them to get to a semi-final last year and I’m sure they will take a lot of learnings from that, like ourselves and bring it into two weeks’ time. It’s two different sides but it’s the bulk of the same squads, we are more experienced, they are as well. It’s exciting.”

Hugo Keenan was speaking as BearingPoint, the official innovation partner of Leinster Rugby, hosted an event showcasing the capabilities of metaverse technology for the Leinster Rugby sporting community.

 

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About the author:

Ciarán Kennedy

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