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Hugo Keenan hopes 'serious' South African sides can push Leinster on

The province play the Bulls at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

Leinster fullback Hugo Keenan.
Leinster fullback Hugo Keenan.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

THERE IS AN element of the unknown about the start of the new United Rugby Championship season, and that goes for the players as much as it does the supporters.

Even the build-up has felt different, with ongoing Covid restrictions making things a little more complicated when it comes to planning a pre-season schedule. In the end, Leinster’s convincing win over Harlequins earlier this month ended up being their sole warm-up game, which in turn placed a greater importance on the work done in-house.

“We have highlighted that in camp here. It’s obviously a bit unusual that you have only gotten the one hit out against another opposition, so we have had one or two small ones (games) in-house here, and they have been good, very competitive,” explains Hugo Keenan.

“There is so much competition for places, so training has been tough and at a serious level.”

Keenan is by now a key part of the Leinster machine, smoothly stepping into the fullback slot vacated by Rob Kearney. Last season he wore the blue of Leinster 12 times, while he also added 13 international caps in what was his first campaign as an Ireland player.

With all that first-team exposure, life on the pitch can become a little more difficult as opposition teams begin to pay closer attention. Keenan acknowledges that if his steady rise is to continue, it’s going to involve a lot of hard work on the training pitch. 

When you play a lot of games there’s going to be a lot more footage of you and naturally teams will get to know you a bit more, so it’s always improving on your strengths and tidying up your weaknesses.

“It’s so no matter what reviews they do and how much they look at you that they’re not going to stop or expose you in that regard. But it’s going to have different challenges for sure, yeah.”

On the subject of different challenges, what about the arrival of South African sides the Bulls, Stormers, Sharks and Lions to the URC? 

Keenan hopes playing against those teams can help fine-tune Leinster for the battles that hopefully lie ahead in Europe, with the pain of last year’s Champions Cup semi-final defeat to La Rochelle still raw.

“It was obviously very disappointing last year, that La Rochelle loss. We have got a number of work-ons, I think the fact that the South African sides are coming into the URC, I think that is going to help us in the European rounds.

They obviously add a more physical, more line-speed (based) game than we are used to and that will challenge us more. It sometimes replicates a lot of the way those big French teams play, like La Rochelle. I think that will be a great help for us.

Especially with the opposition we’re playing against this week (the Bulls). They are a serious, serious side, so it’s going to be a serious challenge. 

“It’s a five-game block for the first window and with the calibre of teams in it and less games around those international windows, it becomes more important to put yourself in a good position early so you are not chasing points at the end of the year.”

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While Leinster have just that one warm-up game to lean on, the Bulls come into the URC fresh from a successful Currie Cup campaign, Jake White’s side impressively seeing off the challenge of the Sharks in the 11 September decider.

“They are a form side, aren’t they?” Keenan continues, looking ahead to Saturday’s game at the Aviva Stadium.

“They’ve just come off the back of their Currie Cup win, and they are the dominant South Africa team at the moment, so it’s going to be such a big challenge for us. They’ve obviously had a number of games and their confidence levels are so high, they’re coming in playing great rugby.

“We’ve been analysing them a bit, doing individual stuff and team stuff, and trying to get to know them as much as possible. It’s going to be new challenge for us, playing against a team and individuals who we won’t know as well, but the responsibility for us is to do our homework and get on top of it.” 

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Ciarán Kennedy

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