Leinster’s Hugo Keenan with the BKT player of the match award. Dan Sheridan/INPHO
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Player-of-the-match Keenan delighted to be back in the saddle with Leinster

A handful of his international colleagues were reintegrated for the previous weekend’s trip to Dragons.

FOLLOWING A disappointing end to the Rugby World Cup in France, Hugo Keenan was glad to be back in the provincial saddle against Scarlets at the RDS on Saturday.

After a handful of his international colleagues were reintegrated for the previous weekend’s trip to Dragons, Keenan was amongst a sizable cohort from the Irish squad to be included in a Leinster match day 23 for the first time this season.

While the quarter-final defeat to New Zealand in the RWC still lingers, Keenan delivered a player-of-the-match performance on his return to club action as the Blues moved to the United Rugby Championship summit with a comfortable 54-5 bonus point win over the Welsh region.

“It’s been tough enough for the lads coming back from the World Cup. We were all looking forward to coming back because it helps to get over it. To be back in the RDS, the last time I played here was Gloucester nearly 11 months ago,” Keenan remarked in a post-match press conference.

“It was exciting to get back out in front of the home fans and build on what the lads have been doing over the last few weeks. You don’t get over it [the World Cup] after a one-week break or holiday. It’s something that you have to let motivate you over the next couple of weeks or months and drive you forward.

“Full focus is just on Leinster, winning Europe and the URC. There’s plenty of work that has to be done to get us to that point. It’s exciting times, big matches to come and a bit of revenge in the next two please God as well.”

There is a league visit to Connacht wedged in between them, but the ‘next two’ that Keenan refers to are their URC clash with Munster at the Aviva Stadium this coming Saturday and the European Champions Cup bout against La Rochelle at Marcel Deflandre on 10 December.

It was defeats at the hands of both these teams in the same competitions that ultimately ensured Leinster finished the 2022/23 season without a major piece of silverware to their name.

The fact that Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle have gotten the better of Leinster in the past three Champions Cup campaigns will make their latest meeting one of the more compelling European openers, but Keenan’s mind is currently focused on the upcoming interprovincial showdown with their arch-rivals in Ballsbridge.

“It’ll be good to be back at the Aviva. The squad’s hungry, everyone wants to play in that match. I didn’t play in the one we lost in the Aviva, but I’d have loved to be out there and hopefully, I’ll be out there this week. There’ll be a big Leinster support there and we’re excited for that.

“We’re going to have a good week. We’re going down to Carlow and Kilkenny on Monday and Tuesday, so that’s something new. It’s good for us to get out of our comfort zone of UCD. Seanie [Sean O’Brien] is going to be looking after us down in Tullow.”

In addition to his role as contact skills coach, the aforementioned O’Brien has also been filling in as Leinster’s defence coach — effectively bridging the gap between Stuart Lancaster’s departure and the arrival of Jacques Nienaber.

Though he didn’t officially confirm if Nienaber would be in camp for the build-up to Saturday’s game against his former employers, Leinster head coach Leo Cullen suggested the South African is unlikely to play an active part in the preparation for the game even if he is on Irish soil by then.

“There’s communication between coaches, but it’s small at this point. He [Nienaber] is keen to get in and assess things with his own eyes and be respectful of all the good work that’s going on currently as well. He’s been good in all the conversations I’ve had with him,” Cullen acknowledged after the Scarlets game.

“It will be great to have that new voice, fresh energy in the group. I think you can see what he brings to teams, one team specifically. We’ll see. He won’t have a major coaching role next week, put it that way, but at what point he is in in the next little while… days rather than weeks.”

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