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Rugby

03rd Aug 2023

Hugo Keenan on Ireland’s leadership group and the squad’s “half-mad” characters

Patrick McCarry

Hugo Keenan

“It’s a bit of a working from home week!”

As many of his Ireland teammates are off getting in a bit of sun, sand and sea, Hugo Keenan is staying local and getting through his fitness homework.

We catch up with the Leinster and Ireland fullback just weeks out from what should be his first ever World Cup. A relatively late bloomer, in terms of establishing himself as a regular, Keenan was 23 and an avid Irish fan during the 2019 World Cup.

“I was here, at Leinster,” says Keenan. “When World Cups happen, it gives opportunities for younger lads, and lads lower down in the squad depth chart, to step up. That’s what I was doing. I got a real crack and had a good run of games.”

He did indeed. The Kildare native had played five times (three starts) for Leinster between 2016 and the start of 2019/20. By the time the Leinster lads returned from that World Cup, Keenan had another five, all starts, and he never looked back. He was playing for Ireland that the end of that Covid-affected season and scoring two tries on his debut.

Four years on, Keenan, speaking with us as part of his ambassador role with Inishella, is the undoubted No.15 for Leinster and Ireland. Jimmy O’Brien, Mack Hansen and Jacob Stockdale are the back-up plans but Keenan is the top dog. From talking with him, though, you would never expect it. In the three and a half years since his star ascended, he remains the same unassuming and humble character to deal with.

Keenan was getting through his prescribed Ireland fitness work when we caught up with him and assured me the lads holidaying in Portugal and Spain were doing likewise. “I’ve enjoyed going for a few rounds of golf, in between that and chilling.”

Hugo KeenanHugo Keenan pictured during the Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and England at the Aviva Stadium. (Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile)

Hugo Keenan on Ireland’s leadership group

Iain Henderson spoke with us recently about Ireland approaching their World Cup preparations, and strategies, differently than the last few tournaments. Warm-up games have been cut from four to three, there are days off when players can head home, or abroad, and there is a warm weather training block in mid August.

“There is a lot of prior experience, from the players and coaching staff, from past World Cups,” says Hugo Keenan, “and we’ve been able to tweak and improve it. It’s been an enjoyable four or five weeks in camp. Tough, too, but that’s the nature of it.”

Keenan and Caelan Doris are the 2023 additions to the senior squad’s leadership group. This is the bloc within the squad that go to management with the players’ perspective and speak up more on issues around planning and strategies. The fullback says his inclusion, and that of Doris, is done to aid their development. In time, with the likes of Johnny Sexton, and maybe more, moving on after the World Cup, that leadership group is being replenished.

“There’s different types of leaders within a squad,” Keenan explains. “Whether that is Johnny, who is more heart on his sleeve, or Garry [Ringrose] or Hendy, who can be deep thinkers. It’s a bit of development but an onus on the less experienced lads to speak up, when needs be.”

“It’s very much that there is 42 in the squad,” he adds, “and everyone’s opinion is appreciated, and valid, and encouraged to speak up when something needs to be said. That is very much the environment the coaches, management and backroom staff have created for us.”

Hugo KeenanInishella, BWG Foods’(Credit ¬©INPHO/Dan Sheridan)

Hugo Keenan on Mack Hansen and squad characters

During our chats with members of the Ireland squad, this summer, Leinster lock Joe McCarthy has emerged as a new character within the squad. Tadhg Furlong calls him ‘The Freight Train’.

Dave Kilcoyne, head of the social committee (and all that entails), is another big character, while the young Munster crew of Coombes, Casey, Crowley and Nash can often be spotted locked in chatter. The other guy that causes players to draw breath, and smile, is Mack Hansen.

“Mack is great,” says Hugo Keenan. “I get on very well with him. We obviously have a close relationship because of the nature of where we’re playing in the back three.

“He’s just a unique character. He’s great craic and such fun. He comes out with some mad stuff, so he’s been a great addition.

“He’s also a very smart rugby player, so he brings that, as well. He brings a bit of that southern hemisphere element to camp. He’s done that, bringing in fresh ideas and outlooks to camp. He’s been great for me to learn off, in that regard.”

Joe McCarthy is great craic,” Keenan adds. “Finlay Bealham, as well. He’s certainly up there. He’s half-mad. Craig Casey is always a bundle of energy, too. There’s always that mix of personalities, with a few mad-men in the group.”

Getting back to rugby matters, we asked Keenan a question that we threw at Peter O’Mahony, last seasonWhat are the two or three key roles for you to get right if you are to have had a good game?

“High ball stuff,” he begins. “That is probably an obvious one but whether you’ve done it well, or not, is a big one.

“So, have I competed well in the air on our own attacking kicks or in defending them, coming on top of me? That can be pretty black and white, on how you’ve performed.

“My playmaking, and also my defence. My tackling as a fullback – you can often end up on the frontline a bit more, but I often have to judge myself on whether there are any line-breaks against me or my tackles completed.

“I don’t think it quite comes down to the stats, or simple black and white stuff, but it certainly gives you an indication. If those stats drop off, it’s often a nudge for you to pick up on it and gives you something extra in training to work on.”

With that, our time has wrapped and it is back to that fitness home-work. The serious stuff is about to begin.

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