Leinster’s newest wing wonder making most of opportunity to shine in the big league
IT WAS the perfect way to bow out.
Captain of the winning team at Croke Park a year after losing the final of the same competition, named player of the week in a national newspaper after an influential role; Hugo Keenan hung up his GAA gloves at the age of 12 and turned his attention to his true passion.
The road he undertook would lead him to Lansdowne Road, albeit kicking a different-shaped ball than he’d envisaged at the time.
Certainly, he can never have imagined that when he finally made it to the Aviva Stadium at the age of 24 there would be fewer people there to watch him play than there were when he captained St Mary’s of Booterstown to the Corn Matt Griffin title in the Cumann na mBunscol championships of 2007.
Although the GAA coaches at Kilmacud Crokes often tried to get him to come down and play, Keenan’s first love was soccer and he skippered the team at Mount Merrion Youths from U-7s until U-18s.
By that stage, however, they had competition for his ambitions. Peter Smyth had spotted something in the teenager and promoted him to a star-studded Blackrock College senior cup squad which meant he had to choose between rugby and soccer and the oval ball won out. Smyth, who is now the head of elite talent development at the IRFU, is a good judge of talent and brought Keenan with him into the Leinster Academy.
He has achieved a lot on his way through the ranks, playing for the most successful Ireland U-20s side of all time in 2016 and representing his country at Sevens level and, while he’s had to bide his time at Leinster, this has been a breakthrough season.
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When they returned to training after lockdown, the Leinster squad were put through their paces with the feared ‘Bronco’ endurance test.
It isn’t complicated, but the timed shuttle run that sees them run to 20-metre, 40-metre and 60-metre markers and back five times with the goal of finishing under five minutes brings players out in a cold sweat.
When the sport came back in New Zealand, Beauden Barrett made headlines by posting a time of four minutes and 12 seconds which is a club record and a personal best.
A few weeks later, Keenan beat that score by a second at UCD to finish top of the Leinster charts. His coaches took note of his improved condition and marked him down for a role in the side’s end-of-season run.
He missed out on selection against Munster, but when Dave Kearney got injured he came on to the right wing against Ulster and impressed.
Given Munster’s reliance on the high ball, many expected Dave’s brother Rob to come back in for the semi-final but Keenan kept his place and thrived.
“He works really hard, Hugo,” Leo Cullen says. “He’s a huge work-rate in the game, so his numbers are incredibly high, he does a lot of unseen work off the ball and he’s played a good chunk at 15 as well. He’s been really good for us this year and deserving of his chance.”
Cullen’s faith was rewarded with an excellent display. The highlight was his thumping tackle on his fellow Blackrock man Andrew Conway, but on a night where space was at a premium his footwork shone out as he carried six times for 30 metres and posed a real threat to the Munster defence.
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Work-rate is a feature of Keenan’s character that repeatedly crops up when you speak to people about him, but whether it’s at Mount Merrion, Blackrock, UCD or Leinster they all talk about a humble character with bundles of talent and athletic ability and a leader who steps up when needed.
He was part of a ’Rock side that featured a host of future pros. He and Caelan Doris are at Leinster, Nick Timoney and David O’Connor are at Ulster, Oli Jaeger is with the Crusaders, Joey Carbery and Jeremy Loughman are with Munster and Conor Oliver just left the southern province for Connacht.
Unlike Doris, who was only in fourth year that season, Keenan came to the senior team late. He was a ‘C’ team player at U-14 and on the thirds in the Junior Cup year. His performances in fifth year ‘House sides’ meant it was just a matter of what position he’d play when it came to the big one.
The reason for his late emergence was that rugby was slow in gaining his attention. The first jersey Keenan owned was a Chelsea shirt with ‘Duff 11’ on the back and football was his focus.
His uncle, Keith Dignam, was part of the UCD side that won the FAI Cup in 1984 and faced Everton in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup the following season. Indeed, his cousin Mark Dignam is currently lining out for College in Division One of the League of Ireland.
Keenan’s coach at Mount Merrion, Barry Saul, vividly remembers the day his captain came to tell him he’d be quitting the Mount Merrion Boys squad to focus on attaining a spot on the Blackrock Senior Cup team.
“We host a mini-World Cup every summer and I get all my lads to help out of that. It was during June of that year that broke the news,” he recalls. “I was devastated for a few days after that. He had captained the team and played all the way up.
“But it was fate, joining the SCT team that year and scoring a try in the final and going to UCD and the Academy... he took the best path.
“He was a natural player. A centre-half for many years, he was our captain and a born leader inspiring his teammates mainly through his performances and passion. He had a steely determination and was self-driven.”
Saul believes Keenan, who had a Rory Delap-style long-throw in his locker, could have played at League of Ireland level, but he was set for a different path.
He wasn’t alone in a dressing-room of all-rounders. His team-mate Cillian O’Shea captained Dublin to the All-Ireland U-21 title in 2017 and Lorcan Tucker is now a cricket international.
While there was soccer in the family, there was also a rugby connection. Keenan’s grandfather Robert Dowley played three times for Munster, while his father was president of UCD RFC.
Naturally, after an exceptional final year in Blackrock that saw him score a crucial try in the Senior Cup final win, he headed to Belfield to play his senior rugby. His performances there earned him a place on the historic 2016 Ireland U-20 team that beat New Zealand and reached the World Cup final and, subsequently, the Ireland Sevens squad.
Looking back, he believes his time playing out-half with the Sevens side had a big part in his development.
“You just get your hands on the ball so much,” he told the IRFU earlier this year. “Looking back, I appreciate how important that was in my development because it got me familiar with the first receiver role, which is big part of the way Leinster play and a big part of my role at full-back.
“That ability to get your hands on the ball and distribute it. It did wonders for my handling skills, my passing and overall decision-making.
“The experience of playing on the international stage in pressurised environments improved me as a rugby player and the skills you learn and are forced to use under pressure rounded my game in both attack and defence.
“There’s also the physical side of it too. You have to be fit, you have to be well conditioned and when you go back to the XVs game, you’re used to playing at that high intensity which stands to you.”
At UCD, they noticed how the shortened game enhanced Keenan’s foot-work and decision-making.
Soon, they were seeing less and less of him as a player due to his increasing Leinster commitments, but with his brother Rob playing on the wing he’s a regular in the stands at the UCD Bowl and despite his growing profile he still comes in for the post-match celebrations in the dressing-room.
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He made his Leinster debut in 2016, added another cap the following season and three more in 2018/’19. With Rob Kearney away at the World Cup, he took his chance this season, playing 11 times and edging the legendary full-back out of the selection picture.
Although he hasn’t scored, he’s beaten more defenders than anyone else for the province this season.
Andrew Porter played with him at underage level and for UCD and on Saturday they’ll start together at the Aviva.
“He’s kind of like the silent assassin,” the Ireland prop says with a smile. “Whether he’s got a few skeletons in the closet I’m not sure! Ah no, he’s a great lad on the pitch and off the pitch as well.
“I would have played with Hugo at UCD and Ireland U-20s. He was an incredible player back then and he’s definitely been taking his opportunities.
“When he played against Ulster two weeks ago he took his opportunity there, he got the starting spot for the game last weekend. If you’re doing your basics right and getting your stuff right on the pitch when you’re getting your opportunities, you’re going to be rewarded for it.”
Taking those chances has led to the point where Keenan is now deemed ready to start the PRO14 final against Ulster tomorrow – the biggest game of his career to date.
A final in a national venue is nothing new to him and, in a strange quirk of fate, his Leinster teammate Vakh Abaladze was on the losing side in that Croke Park game 12 years ago.
“It’s gas,” Keenan says. “Vakh actually brought it up with me about a year ago, he made the connection. So, I’ve slagging rights over him!”
At 24, this born leader and ‘silent assassin’ is ready to take the next step in his impressive sporting career.
Although Amazon Prime has won the rights to show rugby's new 'Autumn Nations Cup' in Britain this November and December, the IRFU has moved to allay fears that Ireland's game against England will not be broadcast free to air here.