Hugo Keenan: ‘We probably didn’t respect the 14 men of England enough’

The Ireland fullback sustained an aerial bombardment during win over England

There is a moment in the 37th minute of Saturday's Six Nations match when Ireland are pouring forward into the England 22. Irish secondrow, Ian Henderson takes the ball into contact. Prop Cian Healy brings it on with hooker Dan Sheehan adding to Healy's yards with a few England players on his back before Healy is on it again five yards out.

Then England concede a penalty. As they are gathering, scrumhalf Jamison Gibson-Park takes a quick tap with Irish players outside available to his right.

But it's fullback Hugo Keenan he picks. Keenan has been standing back in central field watching as the play develops and decides to make his run, coming at pace between the other Irish options and hitting the pass with pinpoint timing and momentum, breaking the England defence.

“To be honest, I think we both saw the space,” says Keenan. “I saw him (Gibson-Park) react. We both went and he’s obviously very good at playing your heads up sort of rugby. He’s got that natural sort of, even touch rugby thing, he’s just some player isn’t he?”


The try from a perfectly timed run, like a lot of what Keenan currently does for Ireland, is made to look so simple. In defence, his clean, uncomplicated way of playing, whether it is switching on to changing terrain, squeezing through narrow gaps or playing the high balls in Twickenham like he’s in a kick around on the practice pitch in UCD, were a feature of Ireland’s success.

Still, with all of his lucid management of play at fullback, Saturday brought out the tiniest piece of self critical analysis in the 25-year-old.

“I’m sure it was obvious to you all,” he said afterwards. “It probably just wasn’t clicking. We probably didn’t respect the 14 men of England enough, they made it difficult. We tried to play to space because it was opening up for us, but we didn’t execute well enough.

“We were a small bit off, accuracy-wise, and we probably were getting a bit ahead of ourselves. England made it difficult and full credit to them, they put our lineout and set-piece under pressure and played that sort of pressure game.”


The aerial bombardment Keenan endured at least brought out a chuckle. When England began to change the momentum of the match coming from 6-15 down to draw level at 15-15 on the hour, Johnny Sexton and Iain Henderson brought the players to a huddle.

“I remember Hendy and Sexton bringing us together and saying ‘this is the punch in the face we’ve been talking about, it’s time to settle,’” he says.

“They didn’t run it much. They kicked a lot of balls and made life hard for us. It was tough back there. When you’ve Freddie Steward and Sam Simmonds - two great kick-chasers, Freddie is brilliant in the air and it’s as tough as it can get out there.

“Some went my way, a few didn’t. It’s always about focusing on the next one, if I lose one in the ruck or get stripped and knock on it’s just about what you’re going to do next, there’s no real point dwelling on it because they kept coming my way didn’t they?”

Like his predecessor Rob Kearney, Keenan has become adept at taking high balls as teams continue to play what he calls “pragmatic rugby.” The wonder was why England kept doing it.

Playing against Saracens with Leinster he faced similar, while Munster, with Conor Murray's boxing kicking also tested his aerial skills. The only difference on Saturday, he says, were the 81,000 fans.

Now adding a possible Triple Crown to the two Ireland have won in the past 12 years and Keenan eyes Scotland at the weekend in Dublin as perhaps a moment to consider lifting his first trophy as a senior player. In a spinning 18 months or so since his first cap, there have been a lot of firsts.

“It would be so special. I think,” he says. “To do it in front of a home crowd, I can’t remember the last time the lads have lifted silverware in the Aviva so yeah it’ll be incredible.”

“These are the days you want to be involved in and all focus is going to be on that Scotland game and learning our lessons from the England match.”

As ever the readjustments are forefront. The scrum not functioning for a long time, the high penalty count, a few lineouts and throw away offloads. All of them fixable on the run, Keenan believes.

“It’s mixed emotions. We all know we didn’t really play well to our potential. We were a little bit off,” he says. “We were delighted to come over and get the win. A bit of silverware next week, that’s what it’s all about really.”

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times