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'What Hugo is actually testament to, is that a lot of people are written off too early'

Late bloomer Hugo Keenan is now one of the first names on Leinster’s teamsheet.

Hugo Keenan -2

DAVE SWEENEY KNOWS a good athlete when he sees one. Now involved with Athletics Ireland, Sweeney was doing some coaching work with Blackrock College in the early 2010s when his phone rang one day. The man on the other end of the line, Paul Keenan, wanted to know if Sweeney could take a look at his three boys.

“The oldest, Robert, was extremely fast,” Sweeney remembers.

“Then the youngest brother was very tall and had just gone through a huge growth spurt, it was hard to tell how that would turn out because it takes a little time for the muscles and everything to adjust.

“Hugo was sort of in the middle, but what I really noticed was that he was very balanced, and whatever instruction I gave him, he was able to take the instruction really well and was very coachable. It struck me that there was maybe a lot more potential in him, which maybe hadn’t been found yet.”

The picture of Hugo Keenan’s name listed among the substitutes for a Blackrock College U14C team must be the most well-known teamsheet in the history of schools rugby.

But what that teamsheet doesn’t reveal is where Keenan’s priorities lay at the time. This wasn’t a kid desperate to make it as a rugby player. He had started playing minis rugby at the age of six, but he also tried his hand at Gaelic football and was a big soccer fan, playing for Mount Merrion Boys. The first jersey he owned wasn’t the blue of Leinster, but the blue of Chelsea, complete with ‘Duff 11′ printed on the back. 

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James English was involved in coaching rugby at Blackrock during that the time.

“You remember the players who were exciting to work with,” English says.

“When I first met Hugo I was in charge of the athletics team as well in the summertime, and I knew Hugo was a good athlete who played a lot of soccer outside of school, and played rugby but maybe didn’t really take it too seriously, I think he wasn’t that into it. He was a good kid and a pretty good athlete, but he talked a lot about soccer.” 

Then around the age of 14, something clicked. English points to an annual charity Sevens tournament Blackrock used to hold.

“You’d get all the rugby players and pretty much anyone you could scrape in to play in this charity Sevens.

He finished that day as top-scorer of the tournament, out of nowhere. He was playing against Junior Cup team players and a couple of lads who were fourth years but already involved with the Senior Cup team. I remember watching him play, and he had this gliding running technique. You know when you watch a guy and it looks like they have a little bit more time on the ball than other players? He was just identifying and using space.

“For a kid who had never really played at any level at the college, he looked a different class.”

Keenan had played his underage rugby at out-half, but English sensed his skill set could be better utilised further back the pitch.

“I transitioned Hugo into 15 after just seeing him play in that Sevens event, and he took to it like a duck to water. He looked so comfortable and picked up good positioning so quickly and so easily. When you talked to him about things like his positional play, he was an absolute sponge and a delight to work with.”

This was something worth taking a closer look at. That summer, Keenan began working one-on-one with Sweeney.

“I’m wasn’t employed by Blackrock, but I was going in and doing some coaching,” Sweeney says.

The summer between his fourth year and fifth year, I kind of started working with him on a little bit of sprinting technique, how to generate speed quickly. We took some slow motion video analysis and we could see he was overstriding, but he was able to adjust on that very quickly, which made me think ‘OK, that’s pretty good, he picks things up quickly’.

“Then we worked on a strength programme. He would have been fairly slight starting off, we just went through a lot of technical stuff on weightlifting and how to do a proper squat and power clean and pulls and stuff like that, a lot of technical focus.

“I wasn’t connected to the rugby team at all, so my thinking was ‘If I make you a better athlete, you will become a better rugby player’. I was trying to really focus on him getting better mechanics, better running mechanics, and then obviously if you are building strength on top of that, those running mechanics are going to become more powerful.” 

Before that summer, Keenan hadn’t really been on the radar for Blackrock’s Senior Cup team, but he soon found himself on a remarkable upward trajectory. 

“He had a fantastic year in the House 10s team playing U17 against other SCTs (Senior Cup teams),” English continues.

“We’d play a lot of the touring teams that year. We went to England a couple of times, and he just got better and better as the season went on. When he went into sixth year, he went straight into the SCT, predominantly as a winger, played a bit at fullback but he got kept out by Joey Carbery.”

Playing wing, Keenan made a strong impression in the Blackrock team that won the Senior Cup in 2014, scoring a try in the final against Clongowes.

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

All of a sudden, Keenan’s future in the sport was opening up in front of him.

“To be honest, what we were thinking at the time was can we get him onto the Schools Cup team,” Sweeney says. “But he made huge progress in fifth and sixth year.”

Leinster came calling, Keenan playing U19s and U20s rugby for the province and earning selection for the Ireland U20s, head coach Nigel Carolan later revealing they dubbed him ‘The Silent Assassin’, given his quiet demeanor was complimented by a strikingly competitive attitude once he entered the pitch.

“He seemed very laid back and would come across as being very quiet,” English says, “but then when you put him on a field it was almost like he changed personality.

You could see him talking all the time, especially as he got more confident in his role as a fullback. But that laid back personality that you see, he definitely brings a real calm to the game and always looks very comfortable. At the same time, I was always surprised as he grew in confidence how much he would actually talk when he came on the field. Then he’d come off the field again and just be one of the nicest lads you could talk to.”

Within the walls of Leinster’s UCD base, Keenan was making a big impression. 

“I remember meeting Peter Smyth (Blackrock head coach) for a coffee a few years ago,” English says, “and he said ‘You know, we’re really excited about a couple of players. Caelan (Doris) is doing really well, and Hugo is really improving all the time, Stuart Lancaster and all the guys really like him.’ And I thought ‘Wow!’”

Keenan made his senior Leinster debut in November 2016, but had to be patient. He wouldn’t feature again that season and won just one further cap the following year. Three starts at fullback followed in 2018, but the 2019/20 season was his real breakthrough, the province using Keenan 13 times across wing and fullback.

hugo-keenan Keenan's big breakthrough came in the 2019/20 season. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

In a squad packed with young talent, the Leinster coaching staff saw something special in Keenan. Speaking in October 2020, senior coach Stuart Lancaster gave his verdict on the province’s latest emerging hot prospect.

“He’s composed. He doesn’t look flustered,” Lancaster said.

“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. A very good communicator.

“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 he can cover 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.”

Sweeney feels that’s one area that has long marked Keenan out.

“To be honest, I’d say his flat out speed, there’s probably a lot of other guys on the (Leinster/Ireland) team that are faster than him now if you just did it on sprinting speed,” he explains.

“But what he brings to that in addition is really good balance. If he has to slightly change direction, the balance he has enables him to maintain that speed. I’d say on pure sprinting terms, you’d probably have other people who are faster but it’s being able to actually deliver on that speed when it matters and when you need it.”

His try against England in this year’s Six Nations is a good example of that being put to use, Keenan sensing the opportunity from a distance before arriving at speed to take Jamison Gibson-Park’s pass and having the athleticism to break through and cross for a vital score.

On Twitter, former Ireland out-half Ronan O’Gara described it as “an average decision by JGP made into a brilliant decision by Hugo Keenan breaking his balls to make something happen.” 

Moments like that have helped Keenan prove himself as a key player at Test level, another stage where he arrived late onto the scene.

Cast your mind back to the early days of the Andy Farrell era, and the questions surrounding an Ireland team that had just crashed and burned at another World Cup.

There was a rebuild to be done. The captain had retired, and other senior men were nearing the exit door. One of Farrell’s first actions as head honcho was to call time on Rob Kearney’s international career, a bold move considering he didn’t appear to have a ready-made replacement lined up.

In his first Six Nations as head coach, Farrell toyed with the 15 shirt. Jordan Larmour got a couple of opportunites while he also took a look at Jacob Stockdale. Neither player managed to make the position their own.

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irelands-hugo-keenan Keenan has established himself as a key player for Ireland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Keenan debuted for Ireland in October of that year. He was now 24, his first Ireland cap coming four years after his Leinster debut, but it was worth the wait. He’d start 18 consecutive Test matches before finally being awarded a well-deserved rest for this year’s Six Nations clash with Italy.

Having played some of his early international rugby as a winger, his last 14 caps have all come at fullback and he seems highly unlikely to be relocated again having established himself as a major factor in Ireland’s development under Farrell, playing more minutes (790) than any other player across Ireland’s 2021 Tests.

With his strong aerial game, sound decision making and excellent positional sense – not to mention his improving threat with ball in hand – Keenan brings a sense of security and consistency to Ireland’s backfield, providing some big moments in defence.

Those traits have helped him nail down the jersey, but as O’Gara explains, having such a reliable presence at fullback also makes life easier for the players around him.

“He reminds my of Shaun Payne,” O’Gara says.

“When you play with players, you understand the mental comfort they give you. There’s a great feeling when the opposition break, that you know your 15 is going to make that tackle or you know your 15 is going to catch the Garryowen. 

Executing chip-kicks really doesn’t float competitors’ boats. They want you strong at the basics, and Hugo Keenan is very strong at the basics. He seems to have a massive engine and a massive appetite for work, but he also has a good capacity to see the game early as well, which puts him in good positions.

“It’s fantastic to see. I’d say he’s getting a great buzz out of taking to the pitch every time, watching his game get better and better. I think there’s still probably more growth in him and it’s a huge success story.”

Ask any coach about Keenan, and one word that keeps coming up is ‘diligent’.

“You come across plenty of people (at underage level) and you can see that they are almost playing the part of somebody who is already a British and Irish Lion or an international athlete, even if they don’t remotely look like it, and then they never make it,” Sweeney says.

What I’d say about my time working with him is that he drove it, not me or his dad. It’s exactly the same with athletes that make it, it’s never the coach that drives them. If the coach is the one that has to drag them out to training and drag them through everything, it’s never going to work. The successful ones are the athletes that drag the coaches out.”

That appetite for self-improvement hasn’t deserted him.

“He’s very diligent in terms of his work off the field on his game,” says Leinster head coach, Leo Cullen.

“You see him over the last number of caps that he’s had, he’s so consistent in terms of what he delivers but he’s incredibly consistent off the field as well.

“That’s what you want from the guys, those good habits day to day, that separates the good professionals from the top-end guys. The top-end guys deliver that consistency in terms of the preparation piece. Hugo has delivered that really well and I think you see it in the way he plays.”

Keenan has carried that strong Six Nations form back into Leinster, starring in the two Heineken Champions Cup wins over Connacht. The province left him at home for their two United Rugby Championship ties in South Africa in a bid to keep their key men sharp for this weekend’s Champions Cup quarter-final date with Leicester Tigers.

hugo-keenan Keenan shone in the two Champions Cup wins over Connacht. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

With both Leinster and Ireland, Keenan is now one of the first names on the teamsheet when the big games roll around. The late bloomer who continues to improve.

“Hugo was probably one of those guys where if you looked at him at Junior Cup level, you would never have even considered him to be a guy who would play for the house team at U17s, let alone go on and score a try in the SCT and get picked up by Leinster and play interprovincial rugby, play underage (international) rugby and just go through that pathway so well,” English says. “It makes you very proud to have had a very small part in his journey.”

“I think what Hugo is actually testament to is that a lot of people are written off too early,” Sweeney adds.

“For example, with schools U13s or U15s teams, their future has almost been decided at that stage. What Hugo is a really good example of is a late developer. He wasn’t outstanding as a 13, 14 or 15-year-old, but what he was doing was he was developing a lot of other skills. Sometimes we can kind of shove people into one sport too early, and then they become a little bit one-dimensional. But the advantage of doing multiple sports is creating all of these extra skills and balances. 

“But I’d say one thing I would have thought at the time… I thought OK, this guy is good, but I never honestly imagined he was going to be that good.

“He wasn’t an overnight success, but he was willing to put his head down and work on it.”  

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Ciarán Kennedy

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