Rob Kearney would prefer "out-and-out fullback" to cover for Hugo Keenan
"It will only become an issue if Hugo picks up a big injury."
Since taking over as Ireland head coach, after the 2019 World Cup, no player has started more for the world number one side than Hugo Keenan.
The Kildare native made his Test debut in a November 2020 win over Italy, scoring two tries in the process. He had two left wing and two right wing starts, with another couple at fullback. It was not until February 2021 that Farrell settled upon the Leinster star as his fullback. 24 of his last 30 starts have been in the 15 jersey.
While 2020 saw Ireland look like they would struggle to fill the fullback void left by Rob Kearney, the moment Keenan was entrusted with the role, in the 2021 Six Nations, the team has not looked back.
A key issue for Ireland, if you could call it that for a Grand Slam side on a 10-match winning streak, is the lack of specialist fullbacks in the squad selected to train and prepare for the World Cup. Mike Lowry appears to have fallen way down the pecking order while Mike Haley must be asking what else he can do to get a look in.
We caught up with Rob Kearney at Bloom Festival, where he was speaking at a panel discussion from the National Dairy Council Garden, and got his take on Ireland staking a lot in the fitness and form of Hugo Keenan.
Rob Kearney on Hugo Keenan and fullback options
Asked if Ireland may be relying too much on Hugo Keenan as they main man for fullback minutes, heading into the World Cup, Rob Kearney argued it would only prove as much if the 26-year-old was to pick up an injury.
"You'd probably prefer to see an out-and-out fullback there as back-up in there and ready to go.
"That [player] is probably Jimmy O'Brien so I hope, for his sake, that he gets a good amount of exposure to the position in those warm-up games. Potentially, I think he will travel [to France] and feature in some of those games."
The other players in the 42-man Ireland training squad with fullback minutes are Mack Hansen, Robbie Henshaw and Jacob Stockdale but all have proven themselves stronger in their preferred positions across the backline.
It is worth noting that Kearney himself was injured in the first training session, for the 2019 World Cup, after Ireland landed in Japan. That led to Jordan Larmour starting in the win over Scotland. Kearney returned for the game against Japan that Ireland lost, setting them on course for a quarter-final exit against the All Blacks.
On House of Rugby, ahead of that training squad announcement, a strong case was made for Munster fullback Mike Haley to be included by Andy Farrell, despite never winning a cap under him.
"I think you should bring a Mike Haley to France," said Jason Hennessy. "Haley is an out-and-out fullback, and that is no disrespect to Jimmy O'Brien or Mack Hansen. They'd be decent fullbacks but are they out-and-out fullbacks at World Cup level? Probably not. If anything happens to Hugo Keenan, you might be up against it. Whereas you have a guy like Haley that is safe as houses."
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During the Bloom Festival, JOE joined a World Milk Day panel discussion live from National Dairy Council Garden with Irish rugby stars Rob Kearney and Eimear Considine, and MC Joe Molloy. The discussion - “Be the Best” Ireland No.1 at Rugby, No.1 at producing dairy - covered a host of topics, including how Andy Farrell's men would fare at the World Cup.
WATCH HOUSE OF RUGBY HERE:
- "We're making all these comparisons to Jack Crowley and ROG, but he's more like Johnny Sexton"
- Andy Farrell makes some bold calls as Ireland name 42-man World Cup training squad
- 'ROG never got his big send-off... Johnny Sexton will be in a bus, heading down Grafton Street!'
- Brian O'Driscoll believes Paul O'Connell, not Ronan O'Gara, will coach Ireland next
- Peter O'Mahony with two best jokes of the night at the Rugby Players Ireland awards