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'There's a bit of competition' - Lowry's rise drives Keenan to next level

Ireland assistant coach Mike Catt is pleased with their attacking development.

Mike Lowry and Hugo Keenan.
Mike Lowry and Hugo Keenan.

IRELAND ASSISTANT COACH Mike Catt says that the rise of Ulster’s Mike Lowry has helped to push Hugo Keenan’s game to the next level.

Keenan has been consistently excellent for Ireland since coming into the team in the autumn of 2020. The Leinster man has been a standout with his backfield coverage, aerial skills, and low error count, and he has shown new attacking strings to his bow more recently.

Keenan was superb as Ireland beat England last weekend in Twickenham, dealing with the English aerial bombardment calmly but also delivering some eye-catching passes and offloads.

Ulsterman Lowry made his Ireland debut at fullback against Italy three weekends ago when Keenan was rested. 23-year-old Lowry had earned his shot with his excellent form in the URC and Champions Cup.

While Lowry hasn’t been involved again for Ireland since, Catt says his performances have pushed Keenan to keep improving.

“The nice thing is Mikey Lowry has been playing exceptionally well for Ulster and all of a sudden, there’s a bit of competition there, with Jacob [Stockdale] obviously not there because he’s injured at the moment,” said Catt.

“It’s always nice to have that competition in the team and I think we’ve got that in the centres, the wings, the back three. What it does is really push individuals to go to another level.

“Hugo is an incredible professional, he understands the game, is curious about the game, what he wants to learn, and how he wants to learn it. He has taken that challenge on and like we saw last week, he was exceptional.”

johnny-sexton Sexton is Ireland's key playmaker. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Keenan’s growth as a playmaker for Ireland has helped them to bring more variety and be less predictable in attack.

While captain Johnny Sexton remains the chief conductor of everything they do, Catt has been encouraged to see other backs stepping up to use their distribution and decision-making skills as first and second receivers.

“Everybody is a ballplayer, everybody is connected,” said Catt. “The attack is 15 players every single time we have the ball so we are very comfortable with the progress Bundee Aki has made, Garry Ringrose, Hugo Keenan, standing in those positions.

“It’s almost been seamless for them. It’s just a way that we can play a quick game of rugby and play at a speed that we want to play and with an attack we want to play with.

“Ultimately, it gives Johnny or our 10s an ability to take a breath sometimes and not be reliant on them all the time. It’s worked so far really, really well but it’s something that we will get better at and the guys will become more comfortable the more we do it.”

Ireland’s forwards are passing the ball more than ever and, again, Catt has been pleased with the development of this aspect of their game.

However, he pointed out that there is still plenty of scope for improvement and also underlined the importance of Ireland’s defence under Simon Easterby.

“It’s another area where we need to develop even more but the majority of the time, the guys are very comfortable on the ball now, which is great, especially when the linespeed is coming hard at them,” said Catt.

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blair-kinghorn Ireland's defence will look to shut down Blair Kinghorn's time and space tomorrow. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“There’s still a few guys that struggle with it but, again, that’s work-in-progress.

“I’d also like to say that our defence has been pretty impressive too, it’s not just about the attack. Teams have only scored three tries against us in the whole competition and one of those was an intercept from Wales, so we’ve married both of them.

“It’s not just our attack, it’s very much so the same process as in our defence too.”

The Irish defence will be looking to apply major pressure onto Blair Kinghorn tomorrow, with the 25-year-old Edinburgh man set for just his second Test start at out-half for Scotland.

Head coach Gregor Townsend made the shock decision to drop Finn Russell to the bench in order to bring in Kinghorn, who Ireland will attempt to shut down.

“I have watched some footage of Blair and he is a fantastic player,” said Catt. “I think he has a good running game, he is very explosive, he has a hell of a passing game, and if he gets the time and the space his kicking game is exceptional too.

“We would like to think that we won’t give him the opportunity to sit back and play the game in a dinner suit so it is crucial that we do get after him but as a rugby player and what he will do for that Scotland team it is massive, so he is a big threat to us.”

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Murray Kinsella

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