Hugo Keenan has made himself vital for Ireland in France clash

Gerry Thornley: Fullback displayed a wide array of skills in Six Nations opener against Wales

Well, we knew he was quick. But from the vantage point of the ground-level press box, the sight of Hugo Keenan covering the ground to slide on to the ball and touch down over the Irish line when Rio Dyer looked certain to score actually took the breath away.

It was a huge moment, along with many others by team-mates inside the Irish 22, that demonstrated that this team takes as much pride in its defence as it does in its famed attack. But for Keenan’s alertness and that 7s-like speed over the ground, Wales would have trimmed Ireland’s early 14-0 lead in half and given themselves and the home crowd an earlier foothold in the match.

“I wasn’t sure initially whether there was a knock-on or not, but you can’t really gamble,” said Keenan in relation to the tackle by Gareth Thomas on Johnny Sexton that the officials ultimately decided was not knocked forward by the Welsh prop, even though that appeared to be the case, which would have heightened Ireland’s sense of grievance had it led to a try.

Caelan Doris was another obvious contender for theman of the match award that went to Keenan. Funnily enough the full-back was the only Irish player not to be credited with a single tackle in the match. But that intervention, and the fullback’s utter assuredness under high balls, so vital away from home, would have spread confidence through the team.


“We talked about not being afraid, the atmosphere is going to be loud, it’s going to be a fired-up [Warren] Gatland side that are going to try and prove a point so we wanted to start the game fast so that was a bit of my mentality as well.

“I think everybody bought into that. I think the whole team performance in that first half was brilliant and the forwards were immense weren’t they and there’s a lot of kicking and a lot of tough grinding work.

Keenan was arguably Ireland’s most menacing attacker too, with his lines of running, footwork and surprising strength in contact. Even Andy Farrell was wide-eyed in admiration.

“Wow, yeah. His engine is just amazing, isn’t it? But the courage on that kid, how he got up for those high balls and he never looked like dropping one. And not just that, he always looked dangerous with the ball in hand as well,” said Ireland’s head coach.

“It’s just very reassuring when Wales kick as much as they did knowing that he’s in the backfield but having said that I thought we supported him pretty well as well.”

Such is Keenan’s importance to the team that he been the starting full-back in 20 of Ireland’s last 22 Tests, the exceptions being when he was rested for home wins over Italy and Fiji.

He’ll be the first name on the team sheet for the clash between the world’s two top-ranked sides. Keenan is not attempting to play down the forthcoming clash with France.

“All focus is going to be on that,” said the fullbacks. “We’re going to be looking at what we can improve on. I think that second half there was a bit of a lull so we’re going to have to be better than that if we’re going to beat France at home,” said Farrell.

“They’ve got the better of us the last three times so we know what kind of challenge it is going to be. We’re looking forward to it so we’re going to regroup. A big week for us now.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times