It is a measure of Hugo Keenan’s enhanced status within the Irish squad that along with Caelan Doris and Tadhg Beirne he has been added to the team leadership group.
“It’s a lot of player ownership, player-led,” Keenan said today from the squad’s sun-drenched training base at The Campus in Qinta da Lago in the Algarve.
“We’ve a great leadership group, and there’s a shared responsibility throughout the team, and the coaches have acted as facilitators in that regard. We’ve got a good balance of working hard when we’re on it, but also enjoying our time and our company.
Arguably the first name on the team sheet in more ways than one, Keenan has already accumulated 25 caps, and has been the starting “15″ in all but two of Ireland’s last 26 games. The exceptions were Italy in last season’s Six Nations and last autumn’s Test against Fiji, when rested both times.
Yet like many in this team this Saturday’s opener against Wales at the (kick-off 2.15pm, live on Virgin Media TV and BBC) will be the first time for him to experience the fervour of a full Principality Stadium, having played in the game behind closed doors two years ago when Ireland lost their opening match.
“It’s a big challenge, isn’t it? It’s going be a bit different from the last time, an empty stadium there. I’ve been to two matches in the Millennium Stadium, and everyone is aware of the atmosphere, especially if the roof is closed, that can be generated by the fans.
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Keenan has only ever been in a packed Principality as a spectator, back in the 2015 World Cup.
“I was at the Ireland-Argentina game at the World Cup, unfortunately, and the night before that, the France-New Zealand game.”
Keenan was 19 at the time, but didn’t dare envisage that one day he might be on the pitch representing Ireland in the Six Nations.
“No, I didn’t think that at the time. Definitely not. I think I was in the (Leinster) sub-academy, playing with UCD, not even the Irish Under-20s at that stage. It was a long time away in my mind.”
Now, for Keenan and others in this remodelled team, Saturday’s game marks his third Six Nations campaign.
“We’ve been coming together nicely, building a lot of experience. When I first came in it was also the first time the likes of Caelan, Ronan Kelleher and a new batch of lads were coming in with new coaches as well, so we’ve learned a lot through a lot of ups and downs along the way. We’re pretty close group, and it’s such a competitive one as well with new and fresh faces coming in each camp, pushing for places.”
Looking ahead to Saturday’s opening game against an experienced side in Warren Gatland’s second coming as head coach, Keenan said: “The nature of it being the first game, a lot of it will be focused on ourselves, worrying about what we control and getting up to speed again with everything.
“I think coming over here, being together 24/7 is a great opportunity for us to get back up to speed. Wales, it’s always such a challenge, we haven’t won there for a few years now, It’s a real tough place to go. We’re not underestimating the challenge, and how important the first game will be.”