Don’t ever tell Hugo Keenan he is an overnight success, even if the Leinster and Ireland full-back has taken professional rugby by storm these past 18 months.
It seems difficult to imagine either an Ireland or Leinster line-up not featuring the 25-year-old at number 15 in an important game, such has Keenan’s impact been since Andy Farrell handed him his first Test cap against Italy in the delayed Six Nations game of October 2020.
The full-back has played 20 of the last 21 Tests for Ireland, starting all of them and is fast approaching his half century of Leinster appearances, a milestone he thought was way beyond his capabilities.
In fact, such is his rise through the ranks that Keenan is now one of the frontline players set to be rested this Saturday evening when Leinster welcome Munster to Aviva Stadium for the final round of the United Rugby Championship regular season. Not surplus to requirements but kept out of the firing line before Leo Cullen’s side bids for a fifth European star the following week in Leinster’s Heineken Champions Cup final against La Rochelle in Marseille.
It was a strategy successfully deployed by the head coach ahead of the Round of 16 double header with Connacht, when Leinster flew to South Africa for two URC matches and left their front-liners at home in Dublin to prepare for the European knockout stages.
“It's an exciting time, isn't it?” Keenan ventured yesterday when speaking at Leinster’s introduction to the metaverse by innovation partner BearingPoint. “Two weeks to just look at La Rochelle, to preview them, to do our reviews from Toulouse and get ahead of the game early because there is a lot of work to do.
“We know what sort of side they are and how they like to play. Even look back on the game last year, taking the learnings from that.
“It's good, it will be nice to get a bit of a break this weekend, but there will still be a good side put out against Munster and it's still a huge game. We are also looking to prep those lads who are playing to make sure they perform and hopefully get the win.” Yet for a player who is looking forward to his first Champions Cup final, the focus is inevitably on playing La Rochelle a week on Saturday. He was with Ireland Sevens when Leinster won their fourth star in 2018 and in Bective clubhouse at Donnybrook watching the 2019 final loss to Saracens with his Leinster Academy mates. So it will be a significant next step in Keenan’s personal journey.
“I'm 25 now, turning 26 (in June), so I spent two years in the sub academy, three years in the academy, and half of that in the sevens. It was a long process, I suppose I was never really a superstar growing up or anything like that, like I never thought I'd play for Ireland. I know (Leinster’s academy manager) Peter Smyth said to my dad that he thought I'd get 50 caps - for Leinster - and I thought he was mad.
“It hasn't felt like a long process, because it was what I was expecting, but I've enjoyed the last couple of years. This is only the start, I still feel like I haven't really achieved that much, we have Pro14 titles, but still haven't got a Grand Slam, or a Champions Cup. These are the main goals for me personally, but also the club and country.”