For Leinster and Ireland, Hugo Keenan is proof that Sevens into 15 does go

Fullback has sped through crowded field to take the fullback jersey for province and country

Leinster’s Hugo Keenan makes a break during the Guinness Pro 14 Final against Munster at the RDS. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Leinster’s Hugo Keenan makes a break during the Guinness Pro 14 Final against Munster at the RDS. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

There is still a wide-eyed wonder about Hugo Keenan, how it is he got here. A former Irish Sevens player, he’s no stranger to the thinner air of international rugby. But the last year has been like a steady rush of wind into a disputed void, where Jacob Stockdale, Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway for a while circulated.

Quietly, fuss-free and on the back of a sequence of lead character roles with Leinster, Keenan has taken the fullback position. Just like that, his light touch, elusive game and dependability under a high ball, has allowed him own it. It has been an iron fist in a velvet glove coup.

“Yeah, yeah it’s been good. It’s a run of games and staying fit,” he says. “You’ve got good coaches around giving me cues, different insights from Felipe, Stu and Leo here and then going to Ireland and you’ve new eyes there.

“I like to think I’m taking bits from everyone and from those coaches. Ask any player, it’s getting a run of games and I suppose keeping the momentum going. It’s a bit easier to keep riding that wave then.”

It’s only his second season of having an extended run of games for Leinster. But he’s taken those chances and strengthened his game, added aspects to the instinctive play, much of the forward thrust coming from Sevens.

His perpetual support of the centres and ball carriers and his hungry line running to be available is high tempo and willing. The net result is a fullback rarely far from impacting the game.

While Larmour has great feet and balance, Keenan’s light frame has armed him with a wispy style and an awareness to elude. He will never muscle his way forward. But with his high work rate and deft playing of space, he doesn’t have to. The rewards have been that he has seamlessly integrated with both Ireland and Leinster.

Hugo Keenan in action for the Ireland Sevens side during an Olympic qualifier against Russia at the Stade Bendichou in Colomiers in July 2019. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Hugo Keenan in action for the Ireland Sevens side during an Olympic qualifier against Russia at the Stade Bendichou in Colomiers in July 2019. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

“Yeah definitely,” he says. “Trying to help out the 10s and centres as much as possible and organising those forwards. Yeah, it happened a good bit on the weekend [against Munster].

“Actually, I just found myself in those positions. Sometimes it just happens sometimes you are in those positions. I enjoy that side of the game. That is one thing I’d always refer back to my Sevens days, playing outhalf for them.

“Got comfortable and worked on that a lot of the time in the Sevens programme, so yeah it’s a big thing they drive here in Leinster and Ireland so it’s a good thing to get my hand on the ball as much as possible.”

Keenan is also an example of the shorter game providing a pathway towards a better professional contract in the longer form of the game. Even in a time of increasing specialisation, where players are focused on the glam tour World Rugby Sevens Series and qualification for the Olympic Games, he has shown with Will Connors that crossing over from that life to occasional Pro 14 winter runs in Parc y Scarlets or Scotstoun is possible.

In the provinces, Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune, Munster’s Shane Daly and Leinster’s Jimmy O’Brien have also moved successfully. Perhaps that’s why, at 24-years-old, there’s a freshness to Keenan’s game.

“I dunno,” he says with the air of a player who, luckily, hasn’t had to think too much just yet about wear and tear issues. “I’m still a young buck, so I’m not battered and bruised like some of the older fellas in here.

“It’s only really my second season of getting a good run of games. Thankfully my body is holding. Injuries come and go. It’s a bit of luck with them as well, some of the contact injuries. But there’s great programmes to keep you going and you do get your time off. But yeah, I dunno.”

His first year in a Six Nations camp, Keenan is an earnest hard worker, in contrast to a more nuanced way of playing. At school he took to football too and “was loyal to Mount Merrion” in the Dublin and District Schoolboys League.

A relatively late arrival on the scene, his timed run into the thin celebrity layer of professional rugby could not have been any sweeter. He says that it’s still a learning curve. With Toulon this week, that probably won’t change and likely with a different backline to the one that faced Munster.

“You’ve three lads there like Keith Earls, Andrew Conway and Jacob [Stockdale]. All very good to me,” he says. “We are all helping each other and learning off each other. That was my first time in camp with them and with the new coaches. I like to think I’m taking bits from everyone.”

It seems so. Like a new pair of eyes in the arena.

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