Keenan expects Ireland to 'have our hands full' against high-tempo Japan

The Leinster fullback is a keen admirer of the attacking talent in the Brave Blossoms squad.

Hugo Keenan.
Hugo Keenan.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THE NUMBER OF new faces in the Ireland squad for the games against Japan and the USA presents different challenges in camp for different players. For Hugo Keenan, one of the fastest players in the group, it means more competition in the speed stakes.

“Oh definitely,” comes the quick reply when Keenan is asked if any of the uncapped group can match him for speed. “Rob Balaoucoune, I’m well used to him from the Sevens days, he’s probably the fastest in the squad. And obviously Mike Lowry is electric as well. It definitely shakes things up a bit.”

Keenan only made his international debut last October but holds senior status in the current, more experimental group Andy Farrell is working with for the games against Japan and the USA. 

In the space of just 11 caps, the Leinster man has established himself as Farrell’s first choice fullback in a competitive back three.

“It’s been such a busy period that you don’t have much time to reflect on it that much and it’s really just been big game after big game after big game,” he says.

“So you can’t really rest on your laurels and get comfortable because it’s always about performing for the next match and keeping your hand in the team. Luckily I’ve been able to stay injury free and keep my name on that teamsheet, which is the main thing, but I’ve really enjoyed the year.”

On Saturday Ireland welcome Japan to the Aviva Stadium, and while the Brave Blossoms didn’t get their high-tempo attacking game fully firing against the Lions last Saturday, Keenan feels their electric back three provided enough flashes of quality to remind Farrell’s squad of the threat they can pose.

“They have got a mix of everything. Like, obviously (Kotaro) Matsushima, he is rapid. We all know him from Clermont and the (2019) World Cup. And they have (Siosaia) Fifita, ball carrier, big presence as well and (Ryohei) Yamanaka as well, sort of a ball player, so they have a good mix in the back three.

“They have a wide variety of threats and challenges and they like to play that wide to wide game, so we will have our hands full.

hugo-keenan Keenan and Jordan Larmour during an Ireland training session. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“They pride themselves on being fitter and faster than other teams and moving the point of attack away from the bigger sides that they come up against. We’re a very fit, fast and physical side so we’re not too different from them, so we’ll be ready for the challenge.”

The fast pace at which Japan try to play the game, and their flair and creativity in attack, is something Keenan naturally admires.

“Yeah definitely, like how can you not appreciate Matsushima? He has got the X-factor doesn’t he? So you always look at these players when you are scouting up, even trying to take bits out of their game to add to yours and what-not, so it will be a good challenge for us but I think we will be ready.”

With up to 3,000 supporters due back in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, the game will also represent Keenan’s first opportunity to play a senior international with friends and family in the stands, with his Ireland career to date playing out in empty stadia.

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“We all want to be representing Ireland and for the first time (this season) there is going to be fans in the stadium as well, so there is also that aspect to it, the crowd and putting on a performance and I suppose performing for them as well, to make them proud of us.

“They have been waiting at home, watching all the games, especially for my family, they have never seen me play in a green shirt so hopefully they will be there for me, for Ireland, and they are looking forward to it and so am I.

“They are all rugby mad, not even (just) my close family, my extended family, my two grannies are big into the rugby now. They would probably have never watched a game before, so that is great excitement for them and it has been a great distraction for the likes of them, and uncles and aunts and friends even as well, there hasn’t been too much to do over the last 18 months and sport is a great distraction.

“So yeah, hopefully Saturday will be extra special and (playing for Ireland in front of) a crowd will be something I have always dreamed of. Looking forward to it, I must say.”

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Ciarán Kennedy

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