During Ireland's famous win over New Zealand in the 2016 Under-20 World Championship in Manchester, the head coach, Nigel Carolan, recalls a key moment when their winger Hugo Keenan chased a high kick.
“He launched himself without regard for his body to win the contest. He ended up getting buckled but he won the ball back!”
Keenan was the only ever-present in that Irish Under-20 side through the Six Nations and World Cup, but as it transpired James Ryan, Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Porter would all play for Ireland well before Keenan even made his first start for Leinster in November 2018. A damaged collarbone in his third outing, against Connacht, then stalled his career.
“It’s been a long journey,” said Keenan, now 24, earlier in this 2019-20 season, for his has been a more circuitous route via two years in the Leinster sub-academy, three years in the full academy and other key building blocks.
“I’m a huge fan,” admits Carolan. “He is a silent assassin in my opinion. While his personal demeanour is quiet, soft spoken, supportive, relaxed and diligent, on the rugby pitch he is brave, committed, determined, ruthless and dogged.
“When he was with the Under-20s he was still developing, but he was already a super finisher, brave under the high ball, reliable in defence, a cool head on the ball and had a solid kicking game. He was as tough as nails and put his body on the line but was rarely injured.”
Like his dad Paul, Keenan hails from Booterstown, Dublin, and attended Blackrock College. Keenan senior didn't make the Schools Cup team, but did go on to play as a lock, mostly at J1 level for UCD and Bective Rangers. A former managing partner in BDO, he is a co-founder and executive chairman of Capnua Limited, also helping to set up the UCD academy and served as the club's president.
Keenan's mother Avril (nee Dowley), who hails from Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, was a good hockey player with Railway Union, and is vice-captain of Delgany golf club, while his grandfather, Robert Dowley, was a prop with Dolphin and played for Munster in a 3-3 draw with Australia in 1958 and had a final trial for Ireland.
There is also football in the gene pool. Keenan's cousin Mark Dignam plays for UCD in the Airtricity League, thus following in the footsteps of his father Keith, who was part of UCD's 1985 FAI Cup winning side and played for Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers.
There’s speed there too. Keenan’s older brother Robert still holds the 100m record in Blackrock and plays on the wing for UCD’s AIL team. His younger brother, Andrew, is 6’ 6” and was a good basketball player, while he is currently the Irish Spikeball champion. His sister Naomi, the eldest, is a doctor who came home from Perth at the outbreak of Covid-19.
Keenan began playing rugby with the Lansdowne minis from the age of six to 12 with a team under the tutelage of Gus Aherne, Noel Downer and Kieran Mulligan. The joke went that the three scrumhalves won 20 caps between them (all of them Aherne's obviously) and the highlight was a 2007 tour to Biarritz when Keenan had just turned 11.
Keenan also played gaelic football at St Mary's Boys National School in Booterstown, captaining them to the Cumann na mBunscol in Croke Park, but even during secondary school at Blackrock, football held sway. Keenan played for Mount Merrion Boys from the age of six until 17, and his first replica jersey was a Chelsea top with Damien Duff's name. He progressed from midfield to centre-half, and earned a trial with the DDSL.
His coach at Mount Merrion Boys from under-13s onwards was Barry Saul.
“He was a good footballer and probably still is. Within a few weeks I put him in as captain. He was brave, winning every header and every tackle, and driving on his teammates, more through steely determination than being a loud character. When you had Hugo captaining, coaching and managing was fairly easy because he did a lot of that for you.
“At under-17s we ran a tournament in Deerpark and he said to me, a little sheepishly, that it would probably be his last year as he wanted to make the Blackrock SCT. He definitely could have gone on to play for UCD but it’s probably the best decision he ever made.”
Meantime, Keenan only made the 14Cs in second year in Blackrock, and didn't play Junior Cup, before making strides in fifth year and breaking into the first team in his last year.
“He was small,” says his father, “and in the bigger schools size matters and age matters, and he went to school young. Hugo has always been fast and was a pretty good footballer, and I think football was good for his footwork in rugby.
"In fifth year they do a 10-a-side at the beginning of the year and afterwards the coach, James English, asked Hugo what position he played. Hugo said outhalf but English reckoned he'd make a good '15'. That year he pretended to both of them (Blackrock and Mount Merrion) that he wasn't playing both of them. He'd wash his legs and go and play the other one."
In Blackrock the then athletics coach, Dave Sweeney, said he could further improve the youngster's speed.
"During that summer Hugo trained every day, doing athletics and explosive power, and on the first day back Peter Smyth (the SCT coach) saw him and forecast he would be the squad's bolter. Hugo doesn't mind hard work," says his dad approvingly.
With Joey Carbery at fullback, Keenan played on the wing in a team featuring Caelan Doris, Nick Timoney, Conor Oliver and Jeremy Loughman, beating Clongowes in the final.
Smyth, who is now the IRFU’s head of elite player development, says “once you put Hugo’s name on the team sheet you knew what was coming”. Describing him as an innate footballer, Smyth cites a try Keenan scored as a turning point in the final.
"That was him. He had the ability to turn up and do important things at important times. From a midfield scrum we broke right and (outhalf) Jack Power put him away. He half broke a tackle and scored under the sticks.
“Every level he’s got to he’s excelled. He’s been able to keep pushing forward the whole time,” says Smyth, who observes of Keenan’s relatively late development. “You see it the whole time. Some of it is to do with growth spurts. There are so many different factors at play as to why a guy comes through when he does.”
Another key staging post was Hugh Hogan picking Keenan on the Leinster Under-19 and under-20 teams, before playing in Division 1A of the All-Ireland League with UCD in the 2016-17 season.
"He was always a very good footballer, a good reader of the game, very brave, has great footwork and a fair amount of pace," says the UCD director of rugby Bobby Byrne.
“He played on the wing and at fullback for us, so he’s quite versatile. He’s got an innate sense of where to be, and has a really good football brain. I don’t ever remember him having a poor game.
“Maybe physically, when he came out of school, you mightn’t have imagined him making it to this level. But he’s really developed in the last two years, and I think the Sevens was a major factor in that.”
A key player in the Ireland Sevens programme for over two years, Keenan's father and the Sevens coach, Anthony Eddy, also believe exposing him to high-pressure games in front of big crowds was the making of him, akin to the Leinster flanker Will Connors and the Munster fullback Shane Daly amongst others.
“It helped make him a more confident player and a more competent player,” says Eddy. “He was an integral part of our success over the last couple of years because of his skills set and his engine – he’s got an enormous engine – and he’s a pretty dedicated rugby player.”
Eddy chose him as an outhalf in Sevens. “It enabled him to become a better decision-maker. He’s got a really good passing game and he’s a very good decision-maker on the ball. I think he could play anywhere in the back three, and in the centres.
“Him and Jimmy O’Brien grew and matured into very good footballers in the Sevens programme. It was really important for their confidence to be exposed to that level of rugby as young kids.
“Hugo was exceptional. He was, and would still continue to be, one of the first names on the teamsheet. He’s an outstanding defender and in the game of Sevens you have to be a good defender. He’d make one tackle and go and make another tackle for somebody else.”
Helped by playing both football and Sevens, he reads the game well and has a good positional sense in covering the backfield. In this, and other aspects of fullback play, Kearney has been a willing mentor.
Reclaiming Ross Byrne's kick-off against Ulster two weeks ago as a prelude to their second-minute try, palming the ball back from beyond Peter O'Mahony, was both a skill evident in that Under-20 win in New Zealand and fine-tuned by Sevens. He's also been receiving high kicks, whether on the wing or after switching seamlessly to full-back, under Munster's aerial bombardment.
“He was always an incredible player back then,” says Porter, a former UCD and Irish Under-20s teammate, before exactly echoing Carolan’s words. “He’s a good lad. He’s kinda like the quiet assassin. Whether he’s got a few skeletons in the closet, I’m not sure! Ah no, he’s a great lad and he’s great to have on the pitch and off the pitch as well.”
No skeletons indeed. Everyone has only good things to say about Keenan.
“Mate, he’s a fantastic kid,” enthuses Eddy. “He’s a quality human being, so it’s great to see him doing so well. A perfect gentleman and a good footballer.”
“It’s a great story, and I’d love to see him go to the next level,” ventures Byrne. “Hugo is a great lad. He’s got his feet on the ground, and he’s very level-headed. He won’t get ahead of himself.”
Leinster have six players aged 24 or under in their match-day 23 for the Guinness Pro14 final, with a host more banging on the door.
“What Leinster are doing in bringing through young players is exceptional,” says the UCD director of rugby Bobby Byrne.
At 24, with 26 tests already, James Ryan is virtually an established veteran in this company.
Jordan Larmour (23)
Wondrous footwork and a game-breaker, despite this being his third season for Leinster (48 caps) and Ireland (24 caps), Larmour is still maturing as a full-back.
Hugo Keenan (24)
Having taken the longer road via the Irish Sevens, this Rock boy has availed of this opportunity in part due to injury to others. His time is now.
Ronan Kelleher (22)
Another off the St Michael’s production line who had only made two appearances before this breakthrough season. Strong and a quick, dynamic carrier, he appeared off the bench in all three Six Nations games.
Caelan Doris (22)
The Mayo-born and reared Blackrock product has cemented his standing in Leinster’s backrow and has already broken into the Irish squad. Looks a test match animal if ever there was one.
Will Connors (24)
Also fine-tuned by the Sevens, the Kildare-reared ex-Clongowes flanker is a chop tackler par excellence. Led the defensive charge in negating Stander, de Allende and Farrell last week, and was in line to make his Irish debut in Rome.
Ryan Baird (21)
Despite strong showings in the last two weeks, he just misses out on the final. Another off the St Michael’s production line, especially locks, Baird is fast looming in Ryan’s slipstream, fast being the operative word. His pace wouldn’t be out of place in midfield