Hugo Keenan determined to shake off the blues in time for Twickenham

Ireland fullback a disappointed Chelsea fan at Wembley as Liverpool claimed cup spoils

Rarely if ever does Hugo Keenan indicate a sense of unsettlement.

The 27-year-old, who hopes to shake off a knee injury over the coming days and face England on March 9th, has been the embodiment of chilled since becoming the Irish fullback for coach Andy Farrell almost four years ago.

That was before he took a day trip to visit Wembley Stadium for the first time last weekend.

Bagging a late Liverpool ticket with two friends, Chelsea supporter Keenan arrived at the Carabao Cup final and found himself immersed in a sea of red. In a role reversal, the player became the fan looking down the barrel of a 1-0 defeat for his team against a Liverpool side festooned with young players.


“I have two big Liverpool friends. They had three tickets and teed it up a while back, but I didn’t really know whether I would get the chance to go,” says Keenan. “I’m obviously a big Chelsea fan but I was stuck in the Liverpool end, which wasn’t too enjoyable. I had to hold back some of the emotions.

“I got it cleared with some of the physios and just did a day trip over and back so it worked out well. It was nice to have a bit of a distraction and something to look forward to while you’re injured. It didn’t go our way. We didn’t get the result we wanted. Probably a frustrating one because Chelsea could have and probably should have won it in the 90 minutes.”

On Monday morning videos of 18-year-old Liverpool winger Ben Doak returning to school and being clapped into class by pupils and teachers were being shared on social media. For a long-time Chelsea fan, teenage players humbling your club on the field of dreams can be an unsettling end to the week.

“God, yeah, the kids putting us to shame,” he says. “I heard one of them went into school yesterday. Mad. They settled things well, the academy lads, in extra-time. God, we were pretty useless in extra-time. Bit of a tough watch.”

Tough, emotive criticism too from a professional player, who never fails to hold himself to exacting standards.

Keenan has rarely been the focus of negative commentary for his Ireland performances. Apart from the disappointment for Chelsea, the spectacle of watching Liverpool players celebrate triggered his own motivational spirit. The pronounced difference between Premier League footballers and players like himself, at the high end of elite rugby, was another defining aspect of the final.

“Premier League players are sort of untouchable, it’s nearly like a different world. But it’s very cool,” he says. “I got to the All-Ireland final last year. That was a great experience, especially being a Dub myself and knowing one or two of the players.

“Seeing things like players celebrating gives you that extra bit of motivation. I was unfortunately with those two Liverpool fans, so the rest of the Chelsea supporters all shuffled out straight away after the full-time whistle. I was there for about 45 minutes watching all the celebrations going on. It’s tough but it gives you motivation to be in that situation yourself.”

The desire and drive won’t be in short supply over this and next week with a Six Nations championship win a possibility in Twickenham.

If that happens the chance of a first ever Irish Grand Slam back-to-back snowballs as in their final game Ireland host Scotland in Dublin. Keenan, speaking as an Energia ambassador, won’t think too much about England until the knee is right or at all about Scotland until the Twickenham match is over.

Nor has he the inclination to talk about the Olympic Games, for which the men’s and women’s Irish Sevens teams have qualified, although the idea of doing what French captain Antoine Dupont has done, was something he did consider. Sevens was the pathway for Keenan’s entry into Test rugby.

“You do have to consider it, yeah,” he says. “But it’s hard to balance everything and I’m just focusing on the Six Nations. I suppose you’re always a small bit tempted with the idea of playing in an Olympics. Who wouldn’t want to do that? It’s an incredible opportunity for the Sevens players.

“I know a lot of them have done it already in Tokyo. I played a small part in getting them qualified for that, so I suppose back then it was tough to leave that behind. You’re always tempted to see if it’s possible.”

Ambition to be part of something special, something never done by an Irish team in the Six Nations is an obvious motivator to becoming fit.

Keenan’s whirlwind trip to Wembley also heightened his appreciation for what he has in rugby with “the privileged position” of footballers and rugby players performing for thousands of invested fans. Even a crushed Chelsea fan could see that.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times