Hugo Keenan not letting up after frantic breakthrough season

Before August he wasn’t on Ireland coaches radar but now he is already a mainstay

Leinster’s Hugo Keenan in action against Munster in March. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Leinster’s Hugo Keenan in action against Munster in March. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

He’s been the breakout, or breakthrough, player of the past year. Put another way, he’s been the most improved player and the story of the past year really. He’s also been Mr Reliable. Even Hugo Keenan still has a pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming feeling about him.

Prior to rugby resuming last August, injuries and Irish sevens commitments had restricted the 24-year-old fullback-cum-winger to just 11 starts for Leinster. Eight of them had come in the first half of the 2019-20 season, but he still hadn’t played in the Heineken Champions Cup and, it’s fair to say, he wasn’t on the Irish coaches’ radar last August.

Whereupon, after grasping his chance in Leinster’s second match after the resumption against Ulster, his provincial career, and with it his international career, simply had lift off.

Keenan established himself as a regular in blue, initially on the right wing, in Leinster’s Pro14 semi-final and final, as well as the Saracens European quarter-final. Then, after marking his Irish debut against Italy with a brace of tries, save for the final quarter of the Autumn Nations Cup game away to England, Keenan has played every minute of Ireland’s 11 Tests since last October.

With one-and-a-half seasons crammed into the last nine-and-a-half months, no other Irish player has come close to Keenan’s volume of work.

Unpredictable

In total, he has played just shy of 2,000 minutes in that time (1,978 minutes to be exact).

“Yeah, yeah, I can’t say I was expecting this season. It’s been so unpredictable. It’s been a mad couple of months. I’m proud of what I’ve done so far but there’s still so much more to be achieved. It’s been a lot of highs and lows this season.

“There’s been a few tough losses, both internationally, before the Autumn Nations Cup. Say that France game sticking out where we could have won a Six Nations, and then a tough start to the Six Nations just gone, against Wales and France, and then the La Rochelle game obviously.

“It’s had its lows but it’s been a great learning experience. It’s been great to be involved in the teams. I can’t say I was expecting it so it’s been good.”

If any player was due the week’s holidays afforded the Leinster players before returning to training last week, it was Keenan. He’s had “a few niggles” but maintains: “I’m feeling good and ready to go again.”

One of the quirkier aspects of that two-try Test debut was that it doubled his provincial tally, and he has since added a couple more tries at Test level before, finally, scoring a hat-trick last time out in his classy man of the match performance against Connacht.

“Not for a while, not since my sevens days anyway,” he admits of his hat-trick feat. “I certainly haven’t been in great try-scoring form for Leinster but I suppose the Italy debut I scored three but obviously one was disallowed so that doesn’t count. It was my first hat-trick in professional rugby so that was good.”

The surprise is that he appears not to have been on Warren Gatland’s radar, revealing that he hadn’t even received an email inquiring as to his availability. But no-one could have any complaints about the Lions’ back three selections, he ventured.

“I suppose to even be mentioned as a possibility, like a year ago I would never have thought it would have been possible so I suppose you have to take that sort of positive but you never know what might happen over the next few weeks with injuries and what not.

“There’s still a lot of personal motivations. People want to put their hands up for those Irish squads and things like that. It’s still a fiercely competitive group, there’s so much competition for different positions and the only two games back with the final one in the RDS being in front of a crowd, people want to get into the team for these games so training has actually been very good the last few weeks.”

Lottery

While reaching the Rainbow Cup final looks a tall order for Leinster now, there are still the remaining games away to Glasgow this Friday and against the Dragons at the RDS on Friday week, an occasion which will be marked by the return of 1,200 fans. Leinster are holding a lottery among members over three days before revealing the identity of the winning recipients on Friday.

Keenan’s biggest regret about his 25 games over the past nine-and-a-half months and those nigh-on 2000 minutes of rugby is that they’ve been played in empty stadia, without family or friends being in attendance once. It’s still been surreal.

“It’s been what, 15-16 months since crowds have been in? Everyone is just looking forward to it so much and hopefully we’ll get the family and friends in and make it extra special, and a bit more enjoyable.

“Not that the games are boring, but when you’re winning games it’s always so much more enjoyable when you can celebrate with the crowd and even when games get tough and they can get behind you, push you on and drive you on, it actually does really help.

“I don’t have that much experience of it, especially of the bigger stadiums and bigger crowds, so I’m just so looking forward to that, whenever that’s possible.”

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