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Wednesday 22 January 2020

Hugo gets chance in Thomond battle

Leinster full-back looks forward to ultimate test

Hugo Keenan during Leinster squad training at Energia Park in Dublin. Pic: Sportsfile
Hugo Keenan during Leinster squad training at Energia Park in Dublin. Pic: Sportsfile

Hugo Keenan is used to waiting in line. The patience and the perseverance have served the full-back well, considering he has never quite been first choice fifteen anywhere he has played.

In fact, football for Mount Merrion Boys was his first love, moving between central midfield and centre-back. The pedigree is certainly there, Keenan's uncle Keith Dignam played for Shamrock Rovers, Shelbourne and UCD.

"His sons are both very good footballers, my cousin (Mark Dignam), he plays for the first team in UCD in the Airtricity League," said Keenan.

Ultimately, it was the lure of the Leinster Schools Senior Cup at Blackrock College that tempted Keenan away from that round ball.

"In first, second and third year I was on the lower-ranked (rugby teams) in school. I wasn't getting near the first team so I was always concentrating on football.

"It was only in fifth year, at 16, 17 that I started focusing on rugby," stated the 23-year-old.

"You want to make the SCT team in Blackrock, so I stopped playing football in my final year and just focused on that.

"That's how it kicked off and how I made Leinster 19s. Unfortunately, I haven't played football since."

However, there has always been at least one other man manning his favourite position, forcing Keenan to make his way from the wing.

It may have been no bad thing, for a while, as he was making up for lost time by learning the details of all back-three positions.

At school, Joey Carbery and the Leinster Academy's Jack Power were the competition and Jacob Stockdale was the chosen one at the 2016 U20 World Cup in Manchester.

Keenan wasn't exactly a certainty to make the Leinster Academy, getting there by his application. Not long after the conclusion of the U20 World Cup, Keenan was offered a spot on the Irish Sevens to further grow his game.

"It gave me great exposure at international level at a time when in here (Leinster) I probably wouldn't have gotten that many shots.

"It was about honing in on skills that I wanted to improve on," he said.

"You get so many involvements on the ball; your passing, tackling, everything has to be on point with Sevens because you can't get away with it. It was great for me.

There are as many similarities as differences between Sevens and the 15-man game, the greater space available on attack and ground to cover in defence highlighting any mistakes made. There is, literally, no place to hide.

"Those fundamental skills are the same," he added. "I know it is a bit different, but the basics are there and you have to get them down to 100% to perform at that level."

Keenan made his Leinster debut against Zebre in his first season in November 2016 and saw his second cap against Glasgow Warriors twelve months later.

Last season, there were three starts against Ospreys, Dragons and Connacht, all at fifteen, to take his tally of appearances to five in three seasons.

Then, the presence of the World Cup created the opening for Keenan to establish his game through five starts at full-back, six more caps, three of them from the first minute to the last.

The enforced two-week rest period for Ireland's World Cup starters has led coach Leo Cullen to send Leinster's lambs into a Thomond Park cauldron.

"It's just like any other game, you can't let the crowd affect you or else it will affect your performance," rationalised Keenan, ahead of the biggest test of his career.

"You just have to get on with it and I find that once you get on with the game, everything else doesn't matter."

There would have been the presumption of a Munster win were it not for Leinster's raid of Glasgow Warriors' Scotstoun at the end of November.

Considering all factors, it ranks as Leinster's most impressive win of the season and there are eleven starters back from that evening with Ed Byrne, Andrew Porter, Scott Fardy and James Lowe pr oviding additional firepower.

MUNSTER: M Haley; D Goggin, S Arnold, R Scannell, S Daly; JJ Hanrahan, N McCarthy; D Kilcoyne, K O'Byrne, S Archer, F Wycherley, B Holland (capt), T O'Donnell, C Cloete, J O'Donoghue. Reps: D Barron, J Loughman, K Knox, D o'Shea, J O'Sullivan; N Cronin, J Carbery, C Nash.

LEINSTER: H Keenan; A Byrne, J O'Brien, C O'Brien, J Lowe; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; E Byrne, J Tracy, A Porter, D Toner, S Fardy (capt), J Murphy, W Connors, C Doris. Reps: S Cronin, P Dooley, J Aungier, R Molony, S Penny; R Osborne, C Frawley, T O'Brien,

Verdict: LEINSTER

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