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'I remember I was the D team captain. In fourth year, I was sub for the social team'

Hugo Keenan has been a slow-burning success as he gets set for his second Ireland cap tonight.

NEW IRELAND CAPS are always judged fairly harshly on their choice of song and the delivery of it, so Hugo Keenan is relieved to report that his post-debut crooning “went down well, in fairness.”

Having earned his first cap on the left wing against Italy last weekend, Keenan blasted out a rendition of Natasha Bedingfield’s ‘Unwritten,’ which the Leinster man says is “a go-to for me.”

While that song definitely isn’t everyone’s musical cup of tea, some of the lyrics are rather fitting in Keenan’s case, particularly the title-inspiring line that “the rest is still unwritten.”

It’s unclear exactly where Keenan’s Ireland career will go from here but he comes across as very determined to ensure that the best is ahead.

irelands-hugo-keenan Keenan scored two tries on his Ireland debut last weekend. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The 24-year-old has never really been a star player. After his debut last weekend, a photo of a team sheet from the Blackrock College U14 Cs from around a decade ago did the rounds on social media and Whatsapp. There was Keenan’s name on the bench.

“I remember that year, I was the D team captain,” recalls Keenan. “I think in third year I got onto the Cs. In fourth year, I was a sub for the social team. It was only in fifth and sixth year that I started pushing through.

“And sixth year was actually my first time playing for the firsts. It’s always been slow and steady. I think I’m getting there.”

“I would have been a late call-up to the academy and then did my three years in the Leinster academy so it has been a bit of a slow process but I’m only 24 now and hopefully I’ve plenty more years coming along. I think it’s worked out so far.”

To be fair, he was big into football during his school days but he’s brutally honest in saying that when it came to rugby, “I wasn’t good enough.”

That gradually changed and he helped Blackrock to their Leinster Schools Senior Cup success in 2014, scoring a try in the final.

His performances for the Ireland U20s in 2016 as they reached the World Championship final were a further illustration of his growing talent, but he didn’t shoot onto senior Ireland caps as rapidly as team-mates Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Porter, and James Ryan – who were all capped by Joe Schmidt in 2017.

Instead, Keenan headed into the Ireland 7s programme that year and became a key man for the team over the course of two seasons, helping them towards their eventual World Series qualification and honing core skills like the tackling that is now so prominent in his game.

“That’s where it really helped me – my defence. You’re always exposed in tough situations, one-on-one with guys.

“If you’re comfortable in those situations in 7s, not that it’s easy in 15s, but it will definitely stand to you.”

hugo-keenan-on-his-way-to-scoring-a-try Keenan on his way to scoring for Blackrock in the 2014 LSSC final. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

Ahead of the 2019/20 season, though, Keenan’s ambitions were solely in 15s rugby. He had already won six Leinster caps as Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster started to appreciate how good he could be, but last season was when it really took off for Keenan.

Back in the Leinster environment full-time, he took advantage of this period last year to become the starting fullback and show his quality.

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A supremely fast and fit player whose 4 minutes 11 seconds record on the Bronco fitness test is a second faster than All Blacks star Beauden Barrett’s, Keenan made a big impact on Lancaster.

“He’s very, very good technically, he’s very accomplished as a footballer,” says Lancaster. “He’s got a good skill set, he’s good under the high ball, he’s got good passing left to right and right to left.

“He’s a very good communicator, even though you’d think he’s quiet, he’s very good at communicating. One of the key things he has really grasped hold of… I keep talking to the back three guys about speed and speed endurance.

“There are some back three guys I’ve coached who have got top-end speed and they can make a break but then you miss them for five minutes because they’re recovering from making that break. They’ve got speed but not speed endurance. Or they’ve got the speed endurance but not the top-end speed.

“Hugo has got both, so he’s one of our quickest players – if not the quickest in the squad at the moment – and on the Bronco test, he’s the fittest. So he’s got an incredible capacity for work-rate and as you saw at the weekend, he can really work off the ball. As a fullback, he could be on one side of the field and the next moment he’s on the other side of the field, as a winger he’s got the same capacity.

“He has really embraced that side of being an extra player in attack through work-rate off the ball and that’s been the bit that’s really given him his foothold in the Leinster team and we were delighted to see him take that opportunity.

“He’s composed, isn’t he? He doesn’t look flustered. We’re delighted and very proud of him.”

hugo-keenan-celebrates-after-the-game Keenan is set for cap number two in Paris tonight. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Keenan’s work-rate is an obvious strength and team-mates find it infectious as he buzzes around the pitch, racking up GPS data that is apparently off the charts.

He will need all of his physical and mental qualities for the challenge ahead this evening as he is sure to get a far tougher test on his second Test cap against France, with the Six Nations title still on the line.

In his own unfussy way, Keenan is excited about being asked to take another step up.

“They’re always tough, tight games. It’s always such a tough place to go and lads have been telling me about it and giving me their experiences about it.

“We know it’s going to be such a big challenge, but that’s the position we want to be in.”

- This article was updated at 12.13pm to correct ’2019/29′ to ’2019/20′ in the 15th paragraph. 

Pragmatists Bernard Jackman and Murray Kinsella join the deludedly optimistic Gavan Casey to look ahead to the big one in Paris:


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Murray Kinsella

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