Hugo Keenan one of many Leinster players versed in versatility 

Stuart Lancaster has made it his business to keep his players on their toes with backs young and old given unfamiliar lines to recite in training
Hugo Keenan one of many Leinster players versed in versatility 

VERSATILE: Leinster's Hugo Keenan. Pic: INPHO/Billy Stickland

Versatile probably isn’t the first word that springs to mind when discussing the man who has made Ireland No.15 shirt his own.

Hugo Keenan has hardly missed a beat, or a game, since filling the enormous Rob Kearney-sized hole in the back field for his country and the thoughts of deputising him to another parish border on ridiculous.

That would be to overlook a few things. For one, the Leinster back was actually stationed on the wing as recently as this time last year, for the province’s first two Heineken Champions Cup games against Northampton Saints and Montpellier.

He played out that same role four times the season before and his take when asked where his already accomplished game needs to go from here on in feeds into the sense that no man can treat his jersey as an island that can’t be swapped for another.

“There's a lot, to be honest. You can go through most stuff. You have to keep evolving lots of areas of your game: to be a world-class kicker, to get more comfortable on the ball, to play in multiple positions, to be able to step up wherever is needed.” 

Keenan has embraced the arrival of Andrew Goodman as attack coach this season. A new set of eyes rarely fails to help you see things in a new light, after all, and that’s on top of the work Stuart Lancaster and the rest of the staff do with them.

Lancaster has made it his business to keep his players on their toes with backs young and old given unfamiliar lines to recite in training. Jimmy O’Brien came home from his breakthrough month with Ireland and was told to jump in at ten.

O’Brien turned heads with three auditions in three different positions for Ireland last month but he is hardly alone in expanding his range at a club which seems to embrace the concept of versatility more than most.

Specialists will never go out of fashion so it is unlikely that Josh van der Flier will be used at blindside any time soon, or Jamison Gibson-Park on the wing, but at least half of Leinster’s senior squad is capable of handling more than the one brief.

This goes beyond your Rhys Ruddock-types who can play anywhere across the back row, or the winger who can do a job along the tram lines, or in the centre. Every club has a collection of those in their tool kit.

Leinster in recent years have used Andrew Porter and Cian Healy on both sides of their front row, Ryan Baird has migrated from lock to the blindside so far this season, and Ciaran Frawley has popped up at ten, 15 and centre.

Most adaptable of them all has been Jamie Osbourne who has started four games in four different jerseys: at outside-centre against Benetton, on the wing against Munster, at full-back away to Glasgow and at inside-centre for the visit of Ulster.

The question is whether all this is merely a symptom of the way modern rugby has moved in general, or if this is something that is more obvious at Leinster because of their willingness to think further outside the box.

“I think a bit of both,” said Keenan. “Stu encourages you to play anywhere. The style that we play in attack and as a backline, you have to be comfortable anywhere. You can find yourself on the wing, at first receiver, so he challenges you in that regard.

“It’s definitely the environment we’re put in but it’s brilliant: all those lads stepping up in different positions and performing them when they do get a chance.”

The danger in this, as with all team sports, is the risk of being labelled a Jack of all trades and failing to nail down one spot. Frawley used just that phrase when he was down in New Zealand with Ireland during the summer.

The flip side is that players with so many hats have a much better chance of making matchday squads. That’s all the more true in a year where Andy Farrell will have to squeeze 33 players into his World Cup plans.

Keenan agrees.

“The more positions you can play you’ve got more of a chance of getting into the team, so I don’t think it’s a disadvantage. When you’re in a team you might want to stay in position just to get a bit of continuity and consistency to it, but it’s definitely a positive.”

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