Leinster fullback Hugo Keenan. Craig Watson/INPHO
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'I don’t think we've reached our potential yet' - Keenan expects Leinster to hit stride in Europe

The province open their Champions Cup campaign against Bath at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

THERE WAS NO shortage of eye-catching moments during Leinster’s 28-point defeat of Connacht last Friday.

You had Mack Hansen’s impressive acrobatics for Connacht’s opening try, or Dan Sheehan’s star turn as a makeshift winger as he burned past the Connacht No 11 shortly before half time, to list a few examples.

Yet for all the excellent rugby on display there was one moment early in the second period that was just as notable as any of the 10 tries scored – a rare mistake under the high ball from Hugo Keenan.

The 25-year-old has been a model of consistency in the 15 shirt, with his competence in the air a standout quality that has helped establish him as a key man for both Leinster and Ireland.

Keenan is such a safe bet in the air that when he jumped to gather a high ball against Connacht, only to knock it on, there was genuine surprise in the RDS stands.

“I had two bad mistakes, being honest,” Keenan says.

“Obviously that high ball one, which always annoy me, I sort of pride myself on it. A small bit rusty (after the international break), I’m not gonna lie, it was a short turnaround but I suppose that’s no excuse. 

“Getting back into the Leinster system, sometimes it can take a game to get back into it but I thought the team performance was good.”

Safe to say none of his coaches will lose too much sleep, as Keenan looks primed to play an important role for Leinster in the coming months as the province prepare for their latest Champions Cup campaign.

It’s easy to forget how new Keenan is to all this. Saturday’s game against Bath will be his first taste of a big European game with crowds present at the Aviva Stadium, having played the bulk of his senior rugby in front of empty stands – with five Champions Cup appearances to his name.

First up this year, it’s a Bath team desperately struggling for form and winless from nine in the Gallagher Premiership.

“Yeah, but they’ve been very unlucky I think,” Keenan explains.

There’s been five or six out of nine games when they’ve lost by 10 points. They’ve had a few injuries as well but they’re still a top side. You only have to look at the team sheet to see some of the individuals they have like Jonathan Joseph, Danny Cipriani and all these threats. They’re obviously a very good attacking side so all focus is on them this weekend. 

“It’s a new competition for them as well. A fresh opportunity so I’ll say they’ll definitely be up for it.”

As will Leinster. This is their third successive winter without the Champions Cup in their trophy cabinet. 

Unusually, Leo Cullen’s side have struggled for consistency this season – labouring to a one-point win away at Dragons and losing to Ulster at the RDS. However Friday’s win over Connacht offered a suggestion they might be hitting their stride just in time for a crucial part of the season.

“I don’t think we’ve reached our potential yet, or anywhere close to it,” Keenan continues.

“Like, it has been improving, obviously Connacht was a big improvement on Ulster but we still think we have another gear in us and I suppose there is no better time to show it than the Champions Cup. These are the big games and the ones you have to perform in and win. 

“Every point will matter. The seeding will be important at the end of the day so we are going to be looking at taking every game as it comes and try to get maximum points.”

Keenan’s own role in the team has evolved over the past year as Ireland and Leinster both look to get James Lowe involved with more touches in games. The winger has been popping up all over the pitch, as well as sitting back into the fullback slot to put his big left boot to use.

“You would interchange a bit more,” Keenan explains. “I think it is a great ability for him to have to get involved and we always talk about helping out the 10s and taking a bit of their workload off them.

james-lowe-celebrates-at-the-final-shuttle-with-hugo-keenan Lowe and Keenan have worked well together in the Ireland and Leinster backlines. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

“So, Stu (Lancaster) is obviously big on anyone filling into anyone’s position and Lowie is a brilliant reflection of that, isn’t he, popping up all over the place. And obviously his left foot is useful as well, (we) try and get that involved so it sometimes means I’m out on the wing a bit but that’s just part of the role I suppose. You have to be adaptable and sometimes he doesn’t like chasing those kicks, so I’m happy to do it for him…”

It also puts an extra onus on Keenan’s communication skills in-game. With all that movement happening around him, everyone needs to be aware of each other’s position so as to avoid spaces opening up the backline. 

“It helps that you are sharing the workload that wingers are getting off the wing traditionally now and being involved. That means if you are getting up off a ruck on the touchline and you might see the wings gone, you just hold that position and anyone can fill in anywhere really.

“And I suppose the fact that I have been playing with Lowie for a while, I don’t think it is new but I think he’s doing it a lot better and everyone around in the backline is doing it, and I suppose it is just being highlighted more now.” 



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