It took a while to find Rob Kearney's heir but immense Keenan now totally at home

Keenan rightly deserved the praise he received from the boss on Saturday night.
It took a while to find Rob Kearney's heir but immense Keenan now totally at home

12 March 2022; Hugo Keenan of Ireland is tackled by Jack Nowell of England during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium in London, England. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Hugo Keenan’s Twickenham try will represent the icing on the cake for a performance in the white heat of Six Nations battle that should be remembered for a long time to come.

There will not be any complaints that scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park was named man of the match for his significant contribution to Ireland’s landmark 32-15 victory over the 14 men of England but while the full-back did not pick up a medal for his efforts they nevertheless earned the plaudits of his head coach.

Imperious, for the most part, under the high balls that England repeatedly launched, tireless in his willingness to carry the game to the opposition, fit enough to sustain that effort for yet another 80 minutes in his still fledgling Test career, Keenan rightly deserved the praise he received from the boss on Saturday night.

“I thought he was immense, not just on the high ball stuff or the bravery stuff,” Andy Farrell said. “His ability to take people on, he was all over the field. They kicked a hell of a lot of ball, and there was a lot of back and forward, wasn’t there?

“I’d love to have a look at his GPS because that guy is one fit rugby player.” 

A resilient one also. The 25-year-old recovered effortlessly from the inevitable setbacks he experienced during a frenetic contest played at a fever pitch in front of a raucous English crowd as Twickenham seemed to rock like never before. When opposing full-back Freddie Steward unleashed a crunching hit on him as he gathered yet another high ball and was forced to concede a penalty under pressure from Joe Marchant, it could have seen a less assured individual crumble as the home supporters roared and Marcus Smith closed Ireland’s lead to 15-12 from the resulting kick. Yet Keenan grew still further and was relishing the experience and focusing on catching the next English salvo.

'It's just 100 per cent on that job,” he said of waiting for the ball to descend, “just jumping through the ball, not worrying about anything else. You might get a call from Lowey (James Lowe) or Bomber (Andrew Conway) if you've got a bit of time or not, but other than that, it's all focusing on that ball and catching it. You block out everything else… 

"It was tough back there. When you've Freddie Steward and Sam Simmonds - two great kick-chasers, Freddie is brilliant in the air and it's as tough as it can get out there.

"Some went my way, a few didn't. It's always about focusing on the next one, if I lose one in the ruck or get stripped and knock on it's just about what you're going to do next, there's no real point dwelling on it because they kept coming my way, didn't they?"

That he said it with a chuckle tells you all you need to know about Ireland’s full-back, just 18 Tests into his international career. It took Farrell a little while to find his heir to Rob Kearney in the number 15 jersey. Jordan Larmour and Jacob Stockdale were among the candidates to audition and both enjoyed highs and lows in the position but Keenan has long looked the most suitable replacement for Ireland’s most decorated player and Saturday’s win amid the noise and bedlam of Twickenham for a player whose introduction to Test rugby came after Covid had closed stadiums for two seasons was a moment to savour as he eyed this Saturday’s mission to win the Triple Crown against Scotland back in Dublin.

“Yeah, it's up there. It's mixed emotions. We all know we didn't really play well to our potential. We were a little bit off. We were delighted to come over and get the win. It's such a tough place to go and to get the four tries and to put ourselves in a position to win a bit of silverware next week.

“That's what it's all about really and we've the good opportunity to win a Triple Crown in front of our home fans and it excites me and it's exciting for the whole squad, and you never know off the back of that what might happen.” 

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