From his school’s D team to Ireland regular, via the sevens circuit, we chart the full-back’s rugby journey
The making of Hugo Keenan
Given his path to international rugby, it’s fair to say that Hugo Keenan is something of a slow-burner. In his mid-teens, he could only make the C and D teams at Blackrock College; now he is one of Leinster and Ireland’s most consistent performers.
“From 18 to the Ireland jersey, he has excelled and achieved at every single level,” says Peter Smyth, who coached the Blackrock College team that beat Clongowes in the 2014 Leinster Senior Schools Cup final, a final in which Keenan scored a try.
“My abiding memories of him in that last year are of him never making mistakes. I don’t remember him dropping one ball for a whole year, whether a pass or a high ball. He was extremely comfortable in all areas of the game.”
We talk to other coaches and team-mates who have worked with Keenan to find out more about the full-back…
The making of Hugo Keenan
Ulster back-rower Nick Timoney led a Blackrock College side featuring Keenan to the 2014 Leinster Schools Cup title
“He was quite a late bloomer, so we only played together for the first team in our last year in school. He was quite young for our year and he was also a very good footballer by all accounts, not that I’d admit that to his face!
“We had a pretty good team at school, a lot of players playing under-age for Leinster. He was one who wasn’t doing that, but he’s turned out to be probably the most successful of the people we had.
“He really came into himself in that last year in school. He was so good for us with his footwork and how reliable he was; he didn’t make mistakes and was really good defensively. It took him a while to grow into it; he’d not be the person people picked as an international superstar at 15/16, but when he hit 17/18 he started to show his potential.
“In fourth year, the third-to-last year when he was 15 or 16 years old, out of five or six possible teams he was in the very bottom one. It’s funny when you look at him now – he’s one of the first names on the teamsheet for Ireland.
“To end up in the Ireland team together was pretty crazy. We had a jersey presentation the night before where we (debutants) get messages from family and stuff, then one of the senior or established players says a few words. For me it was Hugo. He said he’d seen all the work I’d done over the years, a lot we’d done together with school and the sevens, and talked about the fact he’d been there for a lot of the journey.
“I’ve known him for a long time and it was pretty special, having a familiar face through the whole experience, someone I’ve known for years and am mates with.”
Nigel Carolan, now Glasgow Warriors assistant coach, worked with Keenan in 2016 as part of the Ireland U20 set-up
“Hugo was part of the age-grade pathway in Ireland, but he wasn’t a player who would have stood out. He came into the U20 programme and as a character was very quiet. Don’t get me wrong, he liked to have a laugh and a joke, but he was quiet-natured.
“We called him the Silent Assassin. He didn’t stand out, you’d not hear him, but he had this ability to pop up somewhere, whether a high ball he was chasing or popping up on someone’s shoulder or a bone-crunching tackle… He did all his talking by delivering physically.
“Even in terms of selection for the U20 squad, he wouldn’t be a guy who was first on the sheet, he would have been down the perceived pecking order. But when he got in the squad… The Silent Assassin. He was very unassuming but he came alive when playing.
“Playing New Zealand at the U20 World Cup, no one gave us a chance but he was one of the guys who came alive, in defence and attack. He was chasing one kick and launched himself with no respect for his own body, got the ball back by going above the head of one NZ player, tipped over, came out with the ball, presented it, then bounced back into position – just utter bravery.
“Other guys came in with a bit of a favourites tag, who’d done things for schools or in age grades previously, but he came in and grew into it. You could see the more he played at a higher level, the more comfortable he got – and his ceiling is way higher, there’s so much more to go. He’s a late developer and thrives the higher the environment.
“His personal skill is his bravery, his technical skill is the high ball – and to be good at the high ball, you have to be brave. He’s grown in confidence and assertiveness, and particularly with the backfield, the responsibility of the position, it’s building that confidence in the players around him. They have a lot more confidence in him and themselves because they know he’s got their back. He’s excelling in the position at the moment and it (the Ireland No 15 shirt) is his to lose.”
Skipper Billy Dardis played with Keenan for Ireland Sevens between 2017 and 2019
“I was at Leinster when Hugo joined and we played for UCD together. I remember playing in a game at Donnybrook against Old Belvedere and giving him an earful! It was one of his first senior games and he was on the wing and I was at full-back and he jammed in on a player on the opposition 22, giving their full-back nearly 20m of space to run towards me. That sticks out as probably the first time I spoke to him.
“He was a big part of us qualifying for the Sevens World Cup in San Francisco. He does the basic things really well. In attack, his passing off both hands is just perfect – he nails the right pass at the right time. He runs great lines and makes good decisions.
“One thing that stuck out was how good he was in defence. He was the best tackler – he just didn’t miss a tackle. He was so reliable and solid, he always played 14 minutes, which is tough, to have that engine to play every minute of every game week in, week out.
“Preparation-wise, he was the first one in the changing room, doing foam rolling, band exercises… He’d do everything he could off the pitch to make sure that on the pitch he was as good as he could be.
“He never did anything incredibly flashy, it was always simple. I remember we were playing Chile at the World Cup in 2018 and were losing by two or three points. We managed to get the ball back in our 22 and went the full length of the pitch, side to side, everyone involved.
“In the last phase Terry Kennedy stepped someone, passed to Hugo, who threw the perfect left-hand pass to Jimmy O’Brien. It was perfectly executed – he did the exact same pass for Andrew Conway to score in the autumn. If that had gone forward or to the deck, we’d have been knocked out of the World Cup but Jimmy scored the try and we won.
“A lot of sevens players could go to 15s and do well; Hugo’s a great example of that. In sevens you’re so exposed but you come out a better player – fitter, faster, your skills are put under pressure, your tackling and passing. He’s now one of the best full-backs in the world.
“It’s impressive what he’s done in the last two years, becoming one of Ireland’s most consistent players. It’s great to see, especially as he’s such a genuine bloke and has worked hard for it. He’s a good man for a sing-song on the bus too!”
Stuart Lancaster has coached Keenan at Leinster since joining the province in 2016
“Hugo has made a seamless transition from the Leinster first team to European rugby to international rugby. He’s got a lot of physical, technical and mental attributes that mean he always performs at a very high level; he’s very consistent.
“His skill attributes are his speed and also his speed endurance, his ability to repeat efforts; he works very hard in the backfield in defence. He’s very good in the air, physically and technically he’s got a lot of attributes you need as a top-end 15.
“The unseen work sets Hugo apart. We’re a pretty fit team but he’s right at the top of the tree. His real X-factor is his ability to work off the ball. He has the ability to step in as first receiver, too.
“He’s also very hard-working, diligent, grounded – he’s a pleasure to coach really. He’ll review his own performance without being asked, he’ll come to the coaches for feedback, he’ll analyse the opposition. So he’s one step ahead; he’s not just doing extras like high-ball work, physical preparation, he also has the mindset to watch other players and learn, prepare for the opposition, so he knows what’s happening before it’s happening.
“He’s got a very good temperament and that’s because he’s always done the work. He’s not fazed because of the confidence he can draw from training and playing with Leinster and Ireland; he takes that into big games.
“The main thing for Hugo was to build his inner confidence and belief, to encourage him to be more assertive in his communication. Young players often think ‘keep your head down and mouth shut’, but that’s the opposite of what needs to happen to get in the reckoning for the first team – you need to give your point of view, communicate in training.
“He’s grown as a leader over the past two or three years and broken through to such an extent that he’s a key player in our team and the Ireland team.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2022 edition of Rugby World.
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