THE Stoop will be virgin territory for the vast majority of Leinster’s players in Sunday’s Heineken Cup quarter-final, but not for Simon Keogh. Not by a long shot.
Leo Cullen, Shane Jennings, Malcolm O’Kelly and Felipe Contepomi will all bring some personal history to the home of Harlequins after stints in the Premiership but, for Keogh, the Stoop is a home from home.
The Dubliner spent five years with the club after joining from Leinster back in 2003 and it was rarely dull. Keogh’s late try secured the Parker Pen Shield (Challenge Cup) in his first season but he suffered relegation in his time there too.
The club is still very much in his blood.
“I lived literally over the back of the stand at Harlequins and had a neighbour, Jim Evans, who used to knock on my door and we used to walk around to the games so I am still good friends with Jim.
“I am still in contact with nearly all of (the players). I think there are two guys that will be playing on Sunday who are new this year but, apart from that, I would know them all, even the guys on the bench.”
Keogh will be riding the pine himself at the weekend. Since his return to Dublin last summer, he has featured just ten times, six of those as a replacement and only twice has he managed a full 80 minutes.
He has done well with such limited exposure, scoring three tries in games where he featured for as little as eight minutes and no more than 34 but how does he feel now having made the move?
“I was there for five seasons and I played a lot of rugby in that time. It was hard to leave but it was a decision that I made, that I wanted to do, to get back to Ireland and correct some things I felt that I didn’t do in my first stint.
“I knew it was going to be a challenge coming back. With the quality of our back line it was going to be very difficult to get into it. Four Grand Slam winners have come back into the team (since the Six Nations) so it shows how difficult it is.”
The temptation is to describe Keogh as some sort of fifth columnist who can provide the vital piece of evidence that takes Leinster over the line but the player himself plays down the significance of his input this week.
Video analysis has rendered such ‘inside’ info largely obsolete these days but Keogh is still well up to speed with a Harlequins side that has won nine games from 10 in all competitions and resides at second spot in the Premiership table.
“You always keep an eye on your former team and they have been in top form this season. They are a young and enthusiastic side. They have loads of pace and they use it. They play with a lot of width and enthusiasm.
“They chase everything and they are never out of a game. They have won a few games in the last few minutes at this stage so they are a team that will never give up.”
Much of that is down to coach Dean Richards who has transformed Harlequins from a soft touch into a hard-nosed outfit in his time in charge, taking them from England’s second tier to the heights of the European game.
Keogh describes the eight-nine-ten axis of Nick Easter, Danny Care and Nick Evans as the ‘heartbeat’ of the side but it was their tight five which earned all the plaudits after their standout win against Bath at The Rec last Saturday.
Like everyone else, Keogh was well impressed.
“If you watch the game, Harlequins actually didn’t do that much. All they did was absorb what Bath threw at them. As I said, they are a very enthusiastic and energetic side and that is how they defended.
“I think there were about 140 tackles to 40 and Bath had about 80% of the possession so that emphasises their enthusiasm and their energy.” It also emphasises Leinster’s need to be clinical with what chances arise this Sunday. Leinster have lost on their last three visits to England but it is only three years since they themselves earned a famous win of their own in Bath when they hit them for 35 points in a round six group game.
The Stoop has never enjoyed The Rec’s fearsome reputation for visiting teams but that may be changing, according to Keogh. “Generally speaking, when peoples’ tails are up they create a bit of atmosphere.
“Their tails are up at the moment. They have a sold-out stadium every week so that creates an atmosphere. I wouldn’t say it is a Welford Road or a Kingsholm or something like that but it is certainly getting that way.”
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