Keenan and his fellow Leinster frontliners focused on getting that fifth star

‘They are the days you want to be involved in. All the work has been geared towards getting to a Heineken Cup final’

Hugo Keenan has had to earn his stripes within the unrivalled Leinster set-up and hence he appreciates the dynamic of a slightly layered squad which digs deep into its reserves to attack trophies on two fronts.

Having been on the outside looking in for Leinster's last two finals in 2018 and 2019, he knows what it's like for the foot soldiers who made the trek to South Africa and are now preparing to meet Munster in their final United Rugby Championship (URC) regular season game at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday (kick-off 7.15pm).

Meanwhile he's earned his place among the frontliners who were kept at home to prepare for their European quarter-final and semi-final, and are now squarely focussed on that fifth star in the Heineken Champions Cup final in Marseilles a week subsequently.

"It's an exciting time, isn't it? Two weeks to just look at La Rochelle, to preview them, to do our reviews from Toulouse and get ahead of the game early because there is a lot of work to do.

“We know what sort of side they are and how they like to play. Even looking back on the game last year, taking the learnings from that, it’s good,” said Keenan in reference to last season’s semi-final defeat by La Rochelle.

“It will be nice to get a bit of a break this weekend, but there will still be a good side put out against Munster, and it’s still a huge game. We are also looking to prep those lads who are playing to make sure they perform and hopefully get the win.”

Keenan is a part of the younger breed to have cut their teeth in the academy and what is now the URC and who will be contesting their first final. In fact he's never even attended a final before now.

"I wasn't there for either (of the last two). I was with the Sevens for the 2018 final and I was in Bective watching the 2019 one with the academy.

"They are the days you want to be involved in. Since then all the work has been geared towards getting to a Heineken Cup final, to get that fifth star. It's basically all we have been talking about in Leinster.It is the pinnacle of club rugby."

Grass patches

He can’t remember where he watched the breakthrough 2009 final, when he was in his sixth class in school, but had been a fan by then.

“My dad was always a season ticket holder so I would always have gone to the RDS games. You’d spend half of it playing rugby out the back on the grass patches. I was always a supporter growing up.”

He had his dreams, but knew he had to put in the hard yards first.

“I suppose you wouldn’t look that far into the distance. No one could have predicted those couple of years, but it was always just looking at the short-term, trying to get my development contract, trying to get a senior contract, trying to get my first few starts.

“That was literally all I was worrying about then, trying to get out of the 7s and become more of a 15s player. You can obviously dream, and I’m sure I did as a youngster about playing in these games.”

"It takes time, there's always a lot of competition as well. Even with Isa and Zana Kirchner, the two Kearneys, there's always lots of options. You just have to take time to earn the coaches' trust."

Those who progressed quicker from his own age group, such as James Ryan and Andrew Porter, provided a source of inspiration rather than frustration.

“That gave me some belief back than, that some day I might get there; a bit of a slower process than the likes of those two, but they’re the freak athletes with the size and power and ability.”

Such has been Keenan’s rapid rise since rugby returned after lockdown it’s worth noting he only made his Champions Cup debut in the re-arranged quarter-final against Saracens in September that year. He has played every minute of Leinster’s 13 European matches since.

Long process

“I’m 25 now, turning 26, so I spent two years in the sub-academy, three years in the academy, and half of that in the sevens. It was a long process. I was never really a superstar growing up or anything like that.

"Like, I never thought I'd play for Ireland, " he admits with a wide-eyed smile. "I know Peter Smyth said to my dad that he thought I'd get 50 caps – for Leinster – and I thought he was mad.

“It hasn’t felt like a long process, because it was what I was expecting, but I’ve enjoyed the last couple of years. This is only the start. I still feel like I haven’t really achieved that much. We have Pro14 titles, but still haven’t got a Grand Slam or a Champions Cup. These are the main goals for me personally, but also the club and country.”

* Hugo Keenan was speaking at the launch of an event by BearingPoint, the official innovation partner of Leinster Rugby, showcasing the capabilities of metaverse technology for the Leinster Rugby sporting community.

BearingPoint is planning to play a central role in leveraging its VR expertise to enable Leinster Rugby to further engage its fans through immersive experiences and to explore the wider commercial possibilities and potential this technology has in the sporting world.

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