Keenan gearing up for high-ball heroics against Leicester

The Leinster full back has the ability to be in the right place at the right time, and to defuse potential danger with minimal fuss

There is nowhere to hide for full backs in modern rugby union. If they cannot soar like single-minded salmon to claim a high ball under intense pressure they will not last long and their team will win nothing.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that the best number 15 currently playing in the UK and Ireland initially struggled to make his school “C” team and is among the less conspicuous members of Leinster’s star-studded squad.

On paper Hugo Keenan will have his work cut out this weekend compared to his Leicester counterpart Freddie Steward, the 6ft 5in skyscraper swiftly establishing himself as one of the world game's safest pair of aerial hands. Which will suit the 25-year-old Dubliner just fine. To underestimate Keenan, as plenty of opponents are finding, is an increasingly big mistake.

Because it is not just a case of how high full-backs can jump or how tall they are. What matters even more is the consistent ability to be in the right place at the right time and to defuse potential danger with minimal fuss. Keenan, some four inches shorter than Steward, is a prime example of someone whose error rate is so low he often goes largely unnoticed.

A classic late developer who did not make the first team at Blackrock College until his final year, Keenan is not the boastful type himself but he is fast becoming one of the first names on the teamsheet for both his province and country. While the Tigers can be relied upon to kick high and often towards the Leinster back three in their Champions Cup quarter-final at Welford Road on Saturday, they will not find the aerial contest an easy win.

Pressure game

For a start Keenan has already been given a taste of what to expect during Ireland's 32-15 win over a 14-man England at Twickenham in the Six Nations.

"Marcus Smith was trying to play a pressure game, similar to what Leicester will probably bring this weekend. They like to put pressure on teams and George Ford will kick a lot."

He also points out that Leinster can put judicious boot to ball themselves.

“You have to be realistic about your odds of winning the ball against the likes of Freddie Steward when there is a contestable kick. But if it’s a good kick and a good chase I know myself how hard it is to take any ball if it is on the money and there is good pressure. We won’t shy away from it but we’ll also try and vary it as well.”

Keenan's personal high-ball heroes were Rob Kearney and Leigh Halfpenny but he has already seen enough of the 21-year-old Steward to be genuinely impressed.

“He’s probably the best in the world at the moment in that area. He’s obviously got the 6ft 5in frame but he’s dynamic as well … always jumping up through the ball and really attacking it. He’s brave as well so it’s a good combination. He’s one of Leicester’s key players, and his chemistry and connection with George Ford is one of the reasons why they’re going so well. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

Main men

One slight handicap could be Leicester’s battle-hardened edge from their recent Premiership exertions, while Leinster’s main men sat out their side’s recent visit to South Africa and will have scant time to adjust to a potentially raucous east Midlands atmosphere.

Keenan, though, believes Leinster are braced for whatever is coming and will be fiercely motivated by past knockout disappointments against Saracens and La Rochelle. "With the squad we have, looking back on the last year and the year before, we were hugely disappointed not to go on and win it. All the focus is on this year. If not now, when?

“We always say that European club rugby, especially in the knockout stages, is the highest intensity and physicality you’re going to play. It’s those sort of tests that really do match an international. We’ll need to bring our best performance because, ultimately, that’s what’s going to be needed to win over there. Nothing but the best.”

– Guardian

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