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'I'd love to get into an academy somewhere because I want to play pro rugby'

19-year-old Dublin native Karl Keane is part of the USA U20s squad.

Updated May 21st 2020, 8:00 PM

THE USA U20 squad had a video call a few days ago and as they introduced themselves one-by-one, the Irish accents were unmistakable.

UCC centre Killian Coghlan and Cork Con outside back Michael Hand are part of the American squad that was named last week, with the group also including players based in New Zealand, Australia, Wales and England – all of them US-eligible.

Among those living in the States, scrum-half Karl Keane enjoyed Coughlan and Hand’s Cork lilt more than most.

“I heard the two guys with pretty thick Irish accents, which was great,” says Dublin native Keane, whose own accent is an American-Irish mixture.

IMG_1954 Keane in action for St Mary's College in California.

While this year’s U20 Americas Rugby Championship has been postponed due to the Covid-19 crisis, there is some hope that the US will get fixtures in this calendar year, most likely against neighbours Canada.

For 19-year-old Keane, an U20 cap would add to his previous representative honours at U16, U17, and U18 level for his adopted nation.

A student at St Mary’s College of California, one of the leading college teams, Keane is a highly-rated prospect in the US and has ambitions of making it in professional rugby.

“That’s been my dream since I started playing – I remember going to Croke Park, the RDS, Lansdowne Road and thinking that this was what I wanted to do,” says Keane via video call, with a Leinster flag hanging in the background at his family home in Seattle.

He first played as a five-year-old, following in his father’s footsteps with Malahide RFC. One highlight with the club was an U8s trip to London in 2009 for a tournament they won, the prize being for Keane and his friends to play at half-time of the Heineken Cup game between Leinster and Wasps in Twickenham the next day.

Keane’s father, Ray, had to move to Seattle for his job with Microsoft when Karl was 10 and there was a worrying lack of local rugby for kids of his age when they initially arrived.

Undeterred, the Keanes – Ray, Karl, and his older brother Killian – were central to forming an U12s team in the Eastside Lions club. Coincidentally, Fiji 7s legend Waisale Serevi had also just moved to Seattle so his son, Junior, was part of the U12 team.

“He’s a really humble man,” says Keane of the Fijian. “He was this big superstar, a World Rugby Hall of Famer, but you’d see him in Seattle running touch at a game in the park, teaching people how to play.”

The rugby wasn’t great at the start but as scrum-half Karl and out-half Killian moved up the age grades together – coached by their dad – they played against some of Seattle’s big Polynesian community and learned plenty of physical lessons.

Karl got picked for the state representative team – the Washington Loggers – and then the USA U16s, whereafter he also got his first taste of senior men’s rugby with the Seattle Saracens around the time he was turning 17.

IMG_2104 Keane playing for the USA U18s in a three-Test series against Canada last summer.

“I don’t play American football,” explains Keane, who will be eligible for the USA U20s again in 2021. “It’s a great sport but it’s not for me. Rugby with the Eastside Lions is played from January to May, so you have a lot of time after that.”

Keane got a waiver and was allowed to play with fully-grown men, including USA internationals and many of the players who have gone on to be back-to-back Major League Rugby winners with the Seattle Seawolves in recent years.

He also had a brief visit back home in early 2019 when Dan van Zyl invited him for a week of training at Rugby Academy Ireland.

“Dan taught me a lot, the fundamentals of passing – where to put my feet, how to follow through – and we did a lot of box kicking.”

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Back in the US, Keane helped the Eastside Lions into the final of the national competition and was voted the best scrum-half in the country by Flo Rugby, who broadcast rugby Stateside. Having played for the USA U18s in 2018, Keane was back with that national team for a second time last year.

As such, he had a strong range of options for college but whittled it down to two: St Mary’s in California or Trinity in Dublin.

“I visited Tony Smeeth in Trinity and I really liked it,” says Keane of coming close to moving to Dublin. “I saw my family too, walked all around the campus, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to make that move.

“I spoke to Tony and he’s good friends with the head coach in St Mary’s, Tim O’Brien, and Tony told me that if I didn’t come to Trinity, I should choose St Mary’s.”

St Mary’s is a small place, with few distractions and a lot of rugby. So it suits Keane down to the ground. He ended up playing lots at out-half in 2020 before the lockdown and though his St Mary’s backs coach Brendan O’Meara agrees that he’s a nine, Keane has “learned a lot about the game from playing at 10.”

Unsurprisingly, Keane has had help from the Irishmen who work in and represent the US. Greg McWilliams, head coach of RUNY in Major League Rugby, knew his dad and provided advice, also linking Keane with AJ MacGinty – who came through US college rugby, qualified to play for the Eagles on residency, and then moved into the pro game.

aj-macginty USA out-half and fellow Dublin native AJ MacGinty has had an influence on Keane. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“AJ has helped me out quite a bit,” says Keane. “It was through Greg that we linked up. I was over in England a few years ago and we met him before one of his Sale matches.

“He talked me through how he did it – going to Life University [in Georgia], played for the Eagles, went to the World Cup, signed for Connacht and was outstanding there before moving to Sale.

“He had almost given up on his rugby dream at one stage, but it shows what can happen.”

Keane’s own dream is burning brightly and he would love a shot with a professional club in Europe.

He has spoken to people with connections in the pro game and cites the example of Roman Salanoa, who played for the USA U20s and has just signed with Munster from Leinster, as he explains his hopes of finding an opportunity.

“I don’t want to just end up playing local club rugby in a few years, I want to go further than that,” says Keane, who remains Ireland-eligible despite his USA underage caps.

“Playing here in America, it can be hard to get your name out there. People are like, ‘Ah, he’s just from America, no one is any good there, it’s just a bunch of American football players.’

“The academies in Ireland are obviously so hard to get into because schools rugby there is just insane, it’s like a factory.

“But I’d love to get into an academy somewhere because I want to play pro rugby.”

-First published today at 19.30

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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