Hugo Keenan writing new twists in his Ireland story

Keenan has become accustomed to unexpected twists in his story. If he imagined himself scoring for his country at Lansdowne Road as a kid then it was for the Republic of Ireland and the ball was round
Hugo Keenan writing new twists in his Ireland story

BLISTERING START: Ireland’s two-try hero Hugo Keenan hopes he is doing enough and taking his opportunities to keep playing, whether it’s at 11, 14, or 15. Picture: Ramsey Cardy

For Hugo Keenan and the three others who made Ireland debuts against Italy last weekend, theirs was a strange kind of glory. No scanning of the crowd for their nearest and dearest as they stood for the anthems. No bear hugs with family members pitchside after the final whistle. No release into the Dublin night in celebration.

When all was done and dusted at the Aviva, Andy Farrell's squad and support staff made the journey a few clicks down the road to the Shelbourne Hotel where the quartet of rookies were treated to a low-key capping ceremony and subjected to the usual initiation mortification. Keenan chose 'Unwritten' by Natasha Beddingfield.

'Today is where your book begins. The rest is still unwritten'

On message anyway, whatever about the key.

"It was unbelievable really, a dream come true getting it,” he said ahead of his second appearance, against France in Saint-Denis, late tonight. 

“A bit different to the circumstances you dream of growing up, but it's still very special. Getting the five points and two tries was a bonus for me. It went well."

Truth is that he has become accustomed to unexpected twists in his story. If he imagined himself scoring for his country at Lansdowne Road as a kid then it was for the Republic of Ireland and the ball was round. And while last Saturday was a debut, it wasn't his first outing in green at senior level. There had already been a dozen previous with the sevens side.

That unplanned for detour took in some remarkable stops: a debut in Moscow, a bronze with an invitational side at Twickenham, a ninth-placed finish at a World Cup event in San Francisco, and the tournament in Hong Kong in April of last year when Anthony Eddy's outfit clinched their spots in the World Series.

Keenan could be forgiven for looking back at that last event with mixed emotions. His sister travelled up from Australia to see him play, a cousin made the journey from New Zealand, but a twisted ankle in the group stages meant that he watched the knockout rounds from the sidelines. “It still took nothing away from how special it was,” he told earlier this year.

He's not the only one to use the sevens scene to push on. Ulster's Robert Baloucoune, Tom Daly at Connacht, and Munster's Shane Daly have all graduated from the same cosmopolitan school but a man can feel a long way removed from a run out at a packed RDS or the Aviva Stadium in the Six Nations when plugging away out of sight and mind on a different continent.

“Yeah, you naturally do, they’re two different codes. I hadn’t even broken into the Leinster team at that stage. That was my focus, to go off to sevens to develop my game to come back and try and get that senior contract for Leinster. That was my goal at the time. My focus was on that. It’s steps as you go along.

“It’s getting into the Leinster side, making your first few starts and then owning the jersey, as Leo (Cullen) likes to say, when lads are away in international rugby. That’s when you get your shot. You look at Leinster now and all those debuts (against Zebre) on Friday last week and those lads will be doing the exact same now.” 

Keenan schooled in Blackrock College. He progressed through the Leinster academy and the Ireland U20s so his story is not some against-all-odds tale of inspiration to match Sean O'Brien's journey from Tullow RFC to the British and Irish Lions. It is, though, a reminder that patience is a virtue and that everyone's path is different.

His devotion to football and the time left over which was spent as an undersized out-half meant that he got no further than captaining the school fourth team in second year, only made the thirds in Junior Cert and was sub for the social side in transition year. It was only in sixth year that he began to flourish and even his invitation to the Leinster academy came relatively late.

For some it happens earlier. James Ryan, Ronan Kelleher and Jacob Stockdale are among those who made massive strides early on but, while slow and steady isn't normally the preferred mode of transport for a wing-cum-full-back, it has got Keenan to a point where the jersey is his to lose right now at the grand old age of 24.

The two tries against Italy made for a blistering start while Stockdale was among those to reference a perpetual workrate that meant he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. That's good because there is no scope to stand still with James Lowe eligible as of next month and Keith Earls back training after his injury.

“There's so much competition,” he acknowledges. “James has been unbelievable for Leinster and he's raring to go for Ireland now. It's just about taking these opportunities, keep putting my hand up and making it hard for Andy (Farrell) when James does become available. The same with Keith.

“Hopefully, I will have done enough to keep playing, whether it's at 11, 14, or 15. It's just about taking these opportunities and I have to take it week-on-week. I was worrying about Italy last week and now I'll worry about this French game. Hopefully, the rest takes care of itself."

It always has.

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