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20-metre passes and 50:22 kicks - Keenan is a key influence for Ireland

The Leinster fullback is one of the first names on Andy Farrell’s team sheet.

THE FIRST IMPRESSIONS of Hugo Keenan at international level were of a player who is incredibly solid.

The word ‘solid’ can come with negative connotations for some reason but that’s not what we mean here.

Solidity is hugely important in Test rugby. Players who make very few errors are invaluable and Keenan is certainly in that category.

His backfield positioning and work-rate are exemplary. He covers kick space well and so often cleans up potentially dangerous situations for Ireland with a minimum of fuss. A very game tackler, he is good at ‘closing the gate’ when swinging up to the edge of the defensive frontline to tackle. Keenan’s communication is something that stood out when there were no crowds at games, his loud voice booming around the empty stadiums.

His aerial skills are excellent too and we had a reminder of that much against Japan last weekend as Keenan soared to take a Johnny Sexton garryowen.

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His work-rate in attack is always impressive – as we saw for Bundee Aki’s try last weekend – and Keenan is reliable and aggressive when carrying the ball.

He is durable too. The Leinster man made his Test debut last October and has started every single one of Ireland’s 13 games since, finishing all but one of them. He has played 1,097 of the available 1,120 minutes on the pitch in that time.

As Keenan has become more comfortable in the number 15 shirt, we have seen his attacking skills flourish too. His offloading and passing have become more prominent, with some nice examples last weekend against Japan.

His 20-metre left-handed pass for Andrew Conway’s second try was a delightful moment of skill, with Keenan accepting the ball from Sexton and getting it across his body under real pressure before releasing an accurate long pass that allowed Conway to finish.

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“It was pleasing, it’s the reason why you do all those drills and have all those skills sessions and why you get all those reps in,” says Keenan of this pass.

“It probably helps that I had to do them all the time with the Ireland 7s. It was exactly like a first receiver pass in the 7s game feeding the likes of Terry Kennedy and Jordan Conroy.

“I used to call it ‘feeding the speed!’ It’s nice when they come off.”

Keenan explains that it has been important for him to keep adding strings to his bow. While he has been playing excellent rugby for Ireland, the 25-year-old says it’s crucial that he keeps improving if he is to stay ahead of his competition at fullback and also avoid being figured out by opposition analysis.

His kicking game is another area that has grown over the past year and there was a brilliant example with his 50:22 against Japan.

This kick gave Ireland the throw-in to the lineout under the new trial law and Sexton crossed for a try directly from it. 

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“It just happened instinctively, their backfield was a bit open, but it’s something where you have to be aware of the rule and take those opportunities when they come.

“Catty [attack coach Mike Catt] is in here coaching the kicking and Richie Murphy was in last week as well, so it’s something that we’re constantly working on. It’s a big thing that I’m trying to improve in my game as well, so it’s nice for one of them to come off.

“I probably should have had a second, though!”

Indeed, Keenan went very close again in the second half, with his 50:22 attempt going into touch just outside Japan’s 22.

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Keenan has taken on every challenge at Test level with great composure so far and now looks to step up again this weekend versus the best team in the world.

“The challenge doesn’t get bigger than against the All Blacks,” he says of Saturday’s clash.

“These are the games you want to be involved in. It’s really exciting. I’ve never played them before… obviously, I had a bit of success at U20s [beating New Zealand in 2016], never came across them at 7s but they are a serious side, a big challenge.”

Keenan is one of the first names on Andy Farrell’s team sheet.

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Murray Kinsella

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