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Hugo Keenan ‘a lot more comfortable’ with set-up as he looks to strengthen place in team 

Ireland full-back relishing his first game in the home of Welsh rugby

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Hugo Keenan of Leinster (right) is ready to prove worth on international stage. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Hugo Keenan of Leinster (right) is ready to prove worth on international stage. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Hugo Keenan of Leinster (right) is ready to prove worth on international stage. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The last time Hugo Keenan was at the Principality Stadium, he watched Ireland’s World Cup dream go up in smoke thanks to a scintillating Argentinian performance.

Sitting in the same stand the night before, Keenan saw the All Blacks put on a masterclass to crush France, and while he looked around at the heaving crowd under the closed roof, the then 19-year old dreamed of one day getting the chance to experience what is usually one of the most special match days in rugby.

Keenan will return to the famous arena tomorrow for the first time since 2015, as the Ireland full-back gets set to play his first game at the home of Welsh rugby, only it won’t be anything like he had imagined.

The roof will be open, which will at least make the surreal atmosphere less of an echo chamber, but if ever there was a venue that was built for a full capacity, it is Cardiff.

“It will make for a different experience in the empty stadium,” Keenan admits.

“I have never played there myself, but the lads all rave about it. We know what it will be like, we are used to playing with no fans now.”

Keenan arrives at what feels like another important juncture in such a good place that almost everyone, including Andy Farrell, was in agreement that the Leinster man was the obvious choice to start this year’s Six Nations as Ireland’s first-choice full-back.

It has been quite the rise for Keenan, who wasn’t even in the squad for the start of last year’s tournament before he forced his way in for the delayed conclusion. He has been a mainstay in the team ever since.

Full-back has been a problem position for Ireland since Rob Kearney moved on, but Keenan has an ideal chance to build on his ever-growing reputation as he is handed his third Test start in the number 15 jersey.

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“I’m a lot more comfortable with it at least,” the 24-year old maintains

“I know what to expect now that I’ve got a taste of it. I know the environment that we’re in. I know the lads much better, I know the coaches much better, so that’s definitely helped.

“I suppose getting a good run of it, that’s what you want as a player. You want continuous games and I’ve been lucky to have been injury-free for that period and managed to keep my hand up and keep my name in there. So, it’s just to keep on building and building.”

Mike Catt and Stuart Lancaster have a similar philosophy in how they want to attack, and much of that is based around the full-back stepping up as a playmaker.

Keenan has looked more comfortable when doing so with Leinster lately, but he knows the demands of international rugby means that he must take his game to the next level.

“It’s something I have had to work on. I think the Sevens is good for it,” he says.

“I played out-half with them and that really challenged me. I was out-half in school until fourth year and then I moved to the back-three, but that was never at a great level.

“The Sevens sort of gave me good exposure at that international level. I know it’s a bit different, but it certainly tests your skills.

“I know Stuart Lancaster with Leinster and Andy (Farrell) here, they want the 15 helping out as much as possible, taking a bit of weight off 10’s and 13’s shoulders – having a two-sided attack and keeping the options open.

“I’m enjoying my time there at the moment. It’s probably my favourite position. You get a good bit of involvement and a bit of a licence to get on the ball a bit more. You’re not waiting out on the wing for it sometimes. It’s good to have the two options and keep them open for coaches and selection.”

With packed defences becoming increasingly more difficult to break down, Keenan has an important role to play in this new era under Farrell.

“Exactly, yeah, defences are so good at the moment, so it’s about picking the times when to go wide,” Keenan adds.

“Sometimes it’s about playing through them. It’s finding that balance, the more options you have with it, the better chance you have of breaking those defences down.

“It’s about 15s being comfortable in the centre or centres covering on the wing, things like that. The more you can be flexible, the better it will be for the team and for the backline.”


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