Underlying numbers will tell you that Hugo Keenan was a deserved player of the match during Leinster’s 54-5 drubbing of the Scarlets on Saturday evening. On his first outing in blue since returning from the World Cup, a pair of try assists and a game-high five defenders beaten were clear markers of the fullback’s consistent attacking threat.
Statistics aside, one moment was arguably just as important as his game-long excellence. Early in the second half, with Leinster firmly in the midst of a sloppy middle period which saw them lose the territorial battle, Keenan’s spark firmly shut the door on the Scarlets.
Visiting scrumhalf Kieran Hardy left Jamison Gibson-Park and Jimmy O’Brien in his wake with an impressive burst of speed. Starting inside his own half, the Wales international marked a course for the corner flag. Two Leinster defenders were beaten for pace, but not a third as Keenan tracked across the field, timing his hit perfectly to knock Hardy into touch and preserve what was at the time a two-score lead.
Minutes later, Keenan was back to the fore in attack, dummying past Ryan Conbeer, using the deception to open a gap and send Garry Ringrose over for a bonus-point try. The score was the opening of the floodgates as Leinster worked past their frustration to score five second-half tries and pad out their lead, one which head coach Leo Cullen acknowledged was not a “a true reflection of the game”.
As for Keenan, he was keen to deflect the attention from his vital interventions. “Lots of lads had big moments, they were just two that anyone in my position would do,” he said. “There is a responsibility to step up. Every time you go away with the international side there’s someone playing in your position, so you have to prove yourself again.”
Up to that point, the previous 50 minutes saw Leinster briefly hit some impressive highs with nine members of the World Cup squad making their seasonal bow. A first minute yellow card for Scarlets centre Johnny Williams for a tip-tackle on Ringrose made an already challenging trip for the visitors altogether more difficult.
Leinster scored 12 points while he was off the field, Sam Prendergast marking his first home start at senior level with a counterattack score that came off the back of an early James Ryan turnover. Backline moves with Prendergast firmly involved yielded two further scores as Jimmy O’Brien and Max Deegan dotted down, Jamison Gibson-Park providing the scoring pass for all three scores up to this point.
The scoreline read 19-0 after 16 minutes. Instead of kicking on, Leinster spent the rest of their half camped inside their own 22. Williams’s score from close range was all Scarlets had to show on the scoreboard for their control of the ball. Ill-discipline, handling errors and some soft tackling not in the category of acceptable misses when flying out of the line, could well have cost Leinster more against different opposition.
“There’s a little bit of rust, naturally,” acknowledged Keenan. “You can’t fault the effort, the intent. Lads were probably barging at the ruck, trying to make a s***fight of it. It was just the discipline, the odd falling off a tackle that probably let us down.”
Regardless, once the 50-minute mark passed and Keenan both saved and set up a score, further tries were added as Jack Boyle, Jamie Osborne (twice) and Deegan all dotted down off the back of some scintillating attack.
The rust aside, the performance of Keenan alongside Dan Sheehan’s power off the bench, Tadhg Furlong’s deft handling display and Ross Byrne’s assured contributions likely have Leinster as favourites for next week’s clash with Munster. Keenan and co have the added motivation of making amends for last season’s URC semi-final defeat. Unprompted, he speaks of the desire for “revenge”.
“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.
“The only thing you can do is [use it] to motivate you, use it to make you a better player. Use it to make the group stronger, more together and drive you on to hopefully put those days behind you with more success to come.”
SCORING SEQUENCE – 4 mins: Prendergast try 5-0; 9: O’Brien try, Prendergast con 12-0; 16: Deegan try, Prendergast con 19-0; 27: Williams try 19-5; Half-time 19-5; 50 Ringrose try, Prendergast con, 26-5; 61: Osborne try, Byrne con 33-5; 66: Boyle try, Byrne con 40-5; 74: Osborne try Byrne con 47-5; 80: Deegan try, Byrne con 54-5.
LEINSTER: H Keenan; J Larmour, G Ringrose (co-capt), J Osborne, J O’Brien; S Prendergast, J Gibson-Park; A Porter, R Kelleher, T Clarkson; J McCarthy, J Ryan (co-capt); M Deegan, J van der Flier, C Doris.
Replacements: D Sheehan for Kelleher, T Furlong for Clarkson and R Byrne for Prendergast (all 51 mins); J Boyle for Porter, R Molony for Ryan, F Gunne for Gibson-Park (all 61); C Frawley for Ringrose (68); S Penny for McCarthy (71).
SCARLETS: T Rogers; T Lewis, J Davies (capt), J Williams, R Conbeer; C Titcombe, K Hardy; S Thomas, S Evans, H O’Connor; A Craig, J Price; B Williams, T Leatherbarrow, C Tuipulotu.
Replacements: W Jones for Thomas (46 mins); M Jones for Craig (51); I Shenton for B Williams, I Nicholas for Rogers (both 57); S Williams for J Williams, R Elias for Evans (both 62); A Hughes for Hardy, S O’Connor for H O’Connor (both 65).
Yellow cards: J Williams (1 min), S Williams (77).
Referee: Hollie Davidson (Scotland).