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'It's just about earning your stripes, some lads develop quicker' - Keenan

The 24-year-old Leinster man had a key role to play in the province’s Pro14 success.

HUGO KEENAN’S FIRST trophy celebrations with Leinster weren’t quite what he might have imagined over recent years.

Last Saturday night, after the province’s Pro14 final success over Ulster, it was a beer and a pizza together in the changing rooms at an empty Aviva Stadium, then off home and into bed early.

With another big job ahead this weekend as Leinster face Saracens in the Champions Cup quarter-finals, there was no time to waste with a hangover. And for Keenan, there’s another big milestone ahead as he gets set for his first European appearance for the province.

robbie-henshaw-james-lowe-and-hugo-keenan-celebrate Keenan [right] with James Lowe and Robbie Henshaw. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I was the 24th man for four of the last six games,” says Keenan of how close he has come to a Champions Cup cap this season.

“I was there doing the warm-ups and ready to play but the opportunity didn’t come my way. I suppose I was knocking on the door then and if the chance comes I’ll be delighted.”

24-year-old Keenan has had to bide his time to get to this stage. He was part of the Ireland U20 team that reached the World Championship final in 2016, playing alongside James Ryan, Andrew Porter and Jacob Stockdale.

While that trio were catapulted on towards senior Ireland debuts the following year, Keenan’s success has been of the slower-burning kind.

He got his senior Leinster debut in November 2016 and then spent the majority of the following two seasons with the Ireland 7s, becoming an integral member of the set-up and helping them to their qualification onto the World Sevens Series.

“I owe a lot to it,” says Keenan of his time with the 7s. “It’s just great exposure to high-intensity, high-pressured situations. 

“Skills-wise, you get on the ball so much it tests you, like longer passes, you’ve got one-on-one challenges in attack, defence, the ruck – it has to be spot on. I’d recommend it for any back three player definitely.”

Leinster were impressed with Keenan’s development and he played for the province four times in the 2018/19 season when his 7s commitments allowed, a clear indicator that Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster rated him.

hugo-keenan Keenan was a key man in Ireland qualifying for the World Sevens Series. Source: Yu Chun Christopher Wong/INPHO

With Keenan putting his full focus on 15s rugby for this 2019/20 season, he has kicked on with Leinster, making 11 starts in the Pro14 and ending up with a key role in recent weeks after being backed to come into the first-choice team after Dave Kearney’s injury.

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The majority of Keenan’s senior appearances for Leinster have been at fullback but he has lots of history on the wing too. He’s comfortable with either but says the number 15 shirt is his preference.

Wherever he lines out, Keenan brings major work-rate and that trait is what Cullen and Lancaster value most.

“It’s huge and it is getting even bigger, wings getting involved in the game, getting off their wing, covering the backfield as well,” says Keenan.

“You have to be fit, there is a lot of space to cover. The fitter you are the easier it is going to make it for you, you can think clearly.”

Keenan, Jordan Larmour, and James Lowe have faced some demanding challenges in the air in recent weeks against Munster and Ulster, with more of them to come in the Saracens clash on Saturday.

“It is such a big area at the moment, the aerial skills. Myself, Lowey, Jordo, all the back threes in Leinster have been working on it loads, working with the nines, getting them to put up testers, and those high garryowens from the 10s.

“It is just about getting the reps and getting confident and comfortable under the ball.”

hugo-keenan Keenan is hoping for his first European cap this weekend. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Keenan’s first knock-out rugby for Leinster is set to be followed by his first European cap this season and the former Blackrock College man will surely have his sights set on further honours.

He’s starting to reel in some of those big-name former Ireland U20 team-mates.

“It’s just about earning your stripes, some lads develop quicker,” says Keenan. “James and Porter obviously that huge physical size and they were ready to take the step up a bit earlier than me.

“I suppose I had to develop skills, went off to the 7s and work on my game a bit more and just bide my time.

“Then there’s injuries and setbacks. It’s just about taking the opportunity when it comes and for some it’s a bit earlier than others, but I got to a final and that’s the first final for me and first trophy so I’m delighted.

“Hopefully, I’ll kick on from here now.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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