Three rounds into the Six Nations and one thing we can say for sure is that Hugo Keenan has made the most of his stint at full-back.
The No 15 shirt had been a cause for conjecture and concern even before Rob Kearney’s Test career ended at the World Cup in Japan but the current incumbent will be hard to shift for the foreseeable after a convincing audition this last six months.
Solid at the back and with a counter that continually evades the first tackle, Keenan also scored a superb try against Italy in Rome last weekend and he hasn’t been alone in creating a stir so soon into his own international story.
Will Connors made his senior debut the same day, against Italy in Dublin back in October, and, while his progress has been as smooth, he was superb again against the Azzurri five days ago when given the nod at openside.
Their efforts aren’t just music to the ears of Andy Farrell. Plenty among their peer group are looking at these two, and the likes of Ryan Baird and Craig Casey, avail of their chances and thinking they can find much the same rhythm.
“I’m delighted for them,” said Leinster’s Jimmy O’Brien of Keenan and Connors. “I am best mates with the two of them. We played sevens together and came through at underage together, but yeah, it shows how quickly it can happen, especially for Hugo.
“Hugo started the season and hadn’t played in a Champions Cup game. Obviously, he went in then and now he’s playing unreal. So, yeah, it shows how quickly it can go, and yeah, it’s class for the two lads.”
It’s funny how these things go. Keenan’s first taste of European rugby at 15 came at O’Brien’s expense given he moved over from the wing when the latter went off injured only nine minutes into the game against Northampton in December.
If that was disappointing for O’Brien then the season in general has been a resounding success. With Kearney at Western Force, and both Keenan and Jordan Larmour away so often with Ireland., the field has been left clear for him to flourish.
This wasn’t the original plan.
O’Brien made a name for himself coming up through the ranks as an outside-centre but he had dipped his toe in the back field at schools levels and volunteered for the post when Leinster were short in the department a few years ago.
Now he describes himself as a utility back with a leaning towards 15 and his GAA background in Co Kildare is just another reason why he is making such a decent fist of it with just four of his dozen appearances this season coming in another slot or off the bench.
“Yeah, I played centre and kinda didn’t have to worry about the backfield and covering, or worry about what other teams were doing in terms of their kicking strategy and what space they wanted to exploit.
“That was one thing. The second thing I found was that, when I played centre, I was in around the ball all the time, whether it was in defence or attacking whereas when we were defending and I was at full-back, I felt kind of removed from the game.
“I struggled to get into it in my first couple of games playing there but then I got to realise you’re almost playing a game against their kickers, you’re trying to stop them by taking away all the space. That’s how I kind of think about it.”