There is nowhere to hide for full-backs in modern rugby union. If they can’t soar like determined salmon to claim a high ball under intense pressure, they won’t last long and their team won’t win anything. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the top No.15 currently playing in the UK and Ireland initially struggled to make his school’s ‘C’ team and is among the lesser members. visible from the star-studded Leinster team.
On paper, Hugo Keenan will have his work cut out for him this weekend compared to his Leicester counterpart Freddie Steward, with the 6ft 5in high-rise quickly establishing himself as one of the most aerial pairs of hands. safe in the world. Which will suit the 25-year-old Dubliner perfectly. Underestimating Keenan, as many opponents find, is an increasingly serious mistake.
Because it’s not just about how high full-backs can jump or how tall they are. What matters even more is the consistent ability to be in the right place at the right time and defuse potential danger with minimal hassle. Keenan, about four inches shorter than Steward, is a prime example of someone whose error rate is so low that he often goes largely unnoticed.
A classic late developer who didn’t make the first team at Blackrock College until his senior year, Keenan isn’t the boastful type himself, but he’s quickly becoming one of the first names on the scoresheet. team of his province and his country. While the Tigers can be counted on to kick high and often to Leinster’s back three in their Champions Cup quarter-final at Welford Road on Saturday, they won’t find the aerial contest a victory easy.
For starters, Keenan already got a taste of what to expect in Ireland’s 32-15 win over a 14-man England at Twickenham in the Six Nations. “Marcus Smith was trying to play a pressure game, similar to what Leicester will likely bring this weekend. They like to put pressure on teams and George Ford will hit a lot.”
He also points out that Leinster can get off to a good start. “You have to be realistic about your chances of winning the ball against players like Freddie Steward when there is a questionable kick. But if it’s a good kick and a good chase, I myself know how hard it is to take any ball if it’s on the money and there’s good pressure . We will not hesitate to do it, but we will also try to vary it.
Keenan’s personal heroes at the high ball were Rob Kearney and Leigh Halfpenny, but he’s seen enough of the 21-year-old steward already to be genuinely impressed. “He’s probably the best in the world right now in that area. He obviously has the 6-foot-5 frame, but he’s also dynamic…always jumping through the ball and really attacking it. He’s brave too, so that’s a good combination. He is one of Leicester’s key players and his chemistry and connection with George Ford is one of the reasons they are doing so well. I look forward to the challenge.
A slight handicap could be Leicester’s seasoned advantage in their recent Premiership efforts while Leinster’s leading men did not feature in their side’s recent visit to South Africa and will have little time to adapt to a potentially noisy East Midlands atmosphere. Keenan, however, believes Leinster are prepared for whatever is to come and will be fiercely motivated by past knockout disappointments against Saracens and La Rochelle. “With the team we have, looking back at last year and the year before, we were extremely disappointed not to continue and to win. All the focus is on this year. If not now when?
“We always say European club rugby, especially in the round of 16, is the highest intensity and physicality you’re going to play. It’s those kinds of tests that really fit an international.
“We will have to bring our best performance because, ultimately, that’s what it will take to win there. Nothing but the best.”