There are few players who have come from virtually nowhere, pre-2019, to the somewhere of being among the most effective performers for Ireland. When Hugo Keenan is in stride, the hungry, scanning intentions of the Irish fullback motoring out of defence always make for a here-we-go moment. He did it against Tonga and again against South Africa and he will do it against Scotland in Ireland’s final World Cup pool match.
Gathering a high punt or a ball thrown back, outside of Johnny Sexton, Keenan probably has more choice to kick, run or pass than any other Irish player. More often than most fullbacks, he takes off on a leggy canter.,The windmill limbs and the relatively slight frame mean Kennan cannot bounce players off him or use absolute force to explode past bodies like team-mate Bundee Aki does. For the most part he must avoid them.
Looking for space, not contact, Keenan and Mack Hansen are Ireland’s two most elusive runners with ball in hand. He beats the odds much of the time, slipping into gaps, changing direction, avoiding the flankers and props who all love to eat up an ambitious fullback running into their hit zone.
Keenan did it against South Africa but was was brought down just a few feet from their line in the first half. Sexton dummied cleverly to release Josh van der Flier for one carry, and then linked with Garry Ringrose, who threw a slingshot of a pass to hit Keenan wide out for a strong carry to the line. Springbok outside centre Jesse Kriel illegally rolled on to Keenan from an offside position to kill the ball, which was missed by referee Ben O’Keeffe.
Scotland will be wary of him. He scored a beautiful try against France earlier this year, a training ground move in which Finlay Bealham popped up the ball for the fullback to accelerate through a gap. But Keenan still had to accelerate beyond the fingers of the covering Romain Ntamack and Thomas Ramos to score the try.
When Ireland played against Italy earlier this year, Keenan took down Italian backrow Lorenzo Cannone, who had burst through the middle of the park with Irish players falling off the big man’s shoulders and hips.,And against Scotland it was Keenan who threw the huge outside pass over two defenders for Hansen to glide across in the corner on the right wing.
Pore over the Irish matches and Keenan is usually doing something pivotal, something that effects the outcome of the game, and often with his defensive work overshadowed by the majesty of his attacking play.
He knows Ireland’s attacking play against South Africa could have been better. “We left a few tries out there all right, it was annoying I didn’t carry three metres further. I was too far [to reach the try line],” he says, then pivots towards the Scots. “You have to be careful of the double-movement, be patient and not greedy. They’re big moments.
“We’re just going to review [the South Africa] game and focus on Scotland, it’s the only thing we can control and we’re definitely not getting ahead of ourselves.”
Keenan is not known as a flyer but is fast and is not known as a big hitter but is a brave and accurate tackler. An unassuming, head-down character, he’s hoping the crowds that rocked up to Stade de France will arrive on Saturday week. He’s counting on it and wants to amplify the message that fans help players, who would like more of what he experienced in the biggest he has played.
“God, I was nervous [before the South Africa match]. I met my girlfriend briefly and she thought I looked sick! I felt good once I got out there. It’s a pressure environment. Stade de France hasn’t been kind to us in the past. There’s a pressure lurking from that loss to France two years ago and ... [we were keen to] learn from that. Jeez, that support was incredible. The Irish crowd are amazing, the numbers, the amount of people who made the effort to get over here and support us – it made some difference.”
“You need to harness it at the right times, and I think the forwards did. I’m sure South Africa felt under the cosh at times when the 60-odd-thousand Irish fans are cheering for us, it does make a difference. There are times you have to ignore it during play and just do your job, but you also have to embrace it and make the most of it.”
Perhaps the match against Scotland will be even bigger still. If fans can again make Stade de France anything like they did on Saturday, an Irish fullback will be stoked, knowing such support can energise the team in clutch moments.
For now, the players are enjoying a slow week and countdown to Scotland in their final Pool B game.
“I’ll chill with the girlfriend and catch up with my parents,” says Keenan, snatching at everyday things for the couple of days they have been gifted off this week. Players will do different things but they won’t be tuning out fully before focusing on Scotland.
“[The break] is a nice thing to have, a little escape, nice to get a bit of recovery in but we’ll definitely be looking at the [South Africa] game, reviewing it and getting the body ready for training this week,” says Keenan. “Won’t be completely switching off.”
Not that he ever does that.