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From sevens to the Pro14, Keenan making the most of every opportunity

The fullback makes his third appearance of the season for Leinster tonight.

IN AN ULTRA-COMPETITIVE position, it says a lot about Hugo Keenan’s early-season performances that the 23-year-old has been the one constant in Leinster’s back three for their opening three Pro14 outings.

A late replacement in the round one victory over Benetton, Keenan was rewarded with a start against Ospreys last week and, on the back of that showing in the backfield, has the chance to make the jersey his own when Edinburgh visit the RDS tonight [KO 7.35pm, eir Sport/Premier Sport].

hugo-keenan Keenan at Leinster HQ at UCD this week. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

With Leo Cullen choosing to rotate his back three resources in the opening rounds, with Dave Kearney returning this evening, Keenan has clearly made an impression on the Leinster management, building on from a couple of encouraging performances last season.

Having appeared to make the breakthrough around last Christmas, Keenan was cruelly struck down by a collarbone injury sustained in his third start of the campaign against Connacht, forcing him to sit out the rest of the year. 

But the former Blackrock College student, who has had to bide his time for opportunities, is now finding his feet in the Leinster dressing room and will make his eighth appearance for the province later.

“I’d like to think I’m building with each game I’m playing,” he says. “I got three starts last year and then had a bit of a run of injuries but through those games, you get more used to the pace of the game, to the atmosphere and just what Pro14 rugby is about.”

A Leinster Senior Schools Cup winner in a Blackrock side containing Joey Carbery, Keenan played on the wing in school but fullback has always been his preferred position, and he has sharpened his distribution, evasive running ability and overall skillset in the sevens game.

Although he made his Leinster senior debut in November 2016, Keenan made just one further appearance in the two years after that, before coming back into the fold last November with a first start against Ospreys.

During that time, and with competition in the Leinster back three incredibly high, Keenan knew it would help his game to gain experience and exposure with the Ireland sevens as he helped Anthony Eddy’s side earn World Series qualification. 

“It was more of a development tool for my 15s game,” he explains.

irelands-hugo-keenan Keenan in action for Ireland sevens. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“There was a lot of competition when I came into the academy in 2016 so it was good for me to get more exposure with the sevens and get a bit more experience at an international standard. It’s great for back threes and centres just to improve your game and I’m glad I did it.

“But my focus has always been on Leinster as I’ve always dreamed of playing for Leinster. Sevens was great for me and I loved it, but getting that contract was always my main aim.”

It’s clear the sevens game has benefitted Keenan in not only helping him to get where he wanted to be, but in broadening his skillset for the 15s game, which has been evident through his performances in blue.

Last week against the Ospreys, Keenan consistently joined the Leinster attacking line as a second receiver and was heavily involved throughout, while also showing excellent positional awareness in the backfield. 

“I played out on the wing a lot in school and played out-half with the sevens,” he continues.

“You get your hands on the ball, you have a lot of involvements there. You’re distributing 10/15-metre passes so it increases your skills and gets you comfortable on the ball. It definitely helped me improve. 

Leinster play good, running rugby and obviously need distributors and ball-players in that. You can’t always rely on the out-half to be that ball-player, so I suppose we’re looking for a second pair of hands to come in and vary up the point of attack. I suppose it fits in well with my game.

Keenan will be hoping to make another big impression in the 15 jersey tonight, with the defending Pro14 champions bidding to make it three bonus-points from three at the start of the campaign.

Cullen has made three changes to his starting XV from last week, with Kearney coming into the back three in place of Fergus McFadden, while the other two changes are in the back row where Max Deegan and Scott Penny come in for Josh Murphy and Will Connors.

After the eight-try hammering of Ospreys, Leinster are preparing for a much stiffer challenge from Richard Cockerill’s Edinburgh, who sit second in Conference B after opening their season with wins over Zebre and Cardiff Blues.

hugo-keenan-with-luke-price Keenan will be hoping for another big game tonight. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Interestingly, the last five meetings between the two sides have all been won by the home team on the day but Edinburgh’s most recent victory in Dublin was all the way back in November 2005 at Donnybrook.

“There are lads away at the World Cup so it’s a good chance to stake your claim on the jersey,” Keenan adds.

“It has been about biding your time and taking your opportunity when it does come, and just make it as hard as possible for them to come back in and take that 15 jersey off you again.”

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Leinster:

15. Hugo Keenan
14. Dave Kearney
13. Rory O’Loughlin
12. Joe Tomane
11. James Lowe
10. Ross Byrne
9. Jamison Gibson-Park

1. Peter Dooley
2. Rónan Kelleher
3. Michael Bent
4. Devin Toner
5. Scott Fardy
6. Max Deegan
7. Scott Penny
8. Caelan Doris.

Replacements:

16. James Tracy
17. Michael Milne
18. Vakh Abdaladze
19. Ross Molony
20. Josh Murphy
21. Rowan Osborne
22. Harry Byrne
23. Jimmy O’Brien.

Edinburgh:

15. Damien Hoyland
14. Jamie Farndale
13. Mark Bennett
12. George Taylor
11. Duhan van der Merwe
10. Jaco van der Walt
9. Nic Groom

1. Pierre Schoeman
2. Mike Willemse
3. Pietro Ceccarelli
4. Jamie Hodgson
5. Murray Douglas
6. Mesulame Kunavula
7. Luke Crosbie
8. Nick Haining.

Replacements:

16. Cameron Fenton
17. Jamie Bhatti
18. Murray McCallum
19. Sam Thomson
20. Ally Miller
21. Charlie Shiel
22. Simon Hickey
23. James Johnstone.

Referee: Ben Whitehouse [WRU].

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About the author:

Ryan Bailey

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