Hugo Keenan believes Ireland can channel the spirit of Wales’ successful class of 2009 when they make their long-awaited return to the Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament in San Francisco this weekend.
Despite being viewed as rank outsiders for the tournament, Wales upset the odds to claim Championship silverware in Dubai nine years ago. That was, coincidentally, the last time the Ireland Men’s Sevens team qualified for the World Cup, eventually losing the Bowl final to Zimbabwe.
Under the guidance of Anthony Eddy since early 2015, the IRFU Men’s Sevens Programme has made notable progress on the international Sevens circuit in recent seasons – with their bronze medal finish at last month’s World Series event at Twickenham providing a glimpse of what this squad is capable of.
Speaking at last week’s squad announcement for the World Cup, Hugo Keenan said: “It was in 2009 that Wales won it. They were a big underdog and we got third place in our first-ever World Series against the top sides. I can’t see why we can’t be another underdog or a dark horse and hopefully go all the way.”
Certainly, their recent performances as an invitational team at the World Series legs in London and Paris offer plenty of encouragement heading into a packed weekend of action at AT&T Park. With the 22-year-old Keenan making a key contribution, Ireland have defied expectations when stepping up to the top tier.
“They’ve been two real highlights for us, those two World Series events. It was good a chance for us to showcase ourselves and play at the top level. They went very well and we’ve just been building after them in the Rugby Europe tournaments and looking nicely into the World Cup now.
“There was no real pressure on us. We were the 16th team, so we were just going out there to prove our point. We knew we were a good side and we just wanted to showcase that. It was about enjoying that. We’d worked hard during the season, so that was a nice sort of reward for us. To be able to put ourselves out there and get the medal at the end of it.”
While the Ulster Bank League is the sole port of call for the majority of Eddy’s 12-man World Cup squad, Keenan is one of four players under contract in the provincial system. After initially coming to prominence in the Ireland Under-20 side that reached the 2016 World Championship decider, the Leinster Academy member has had limited opportunities so far in the province’s senior set-up.
Two appearances off the bench against Zebre and Glasgow Warriors – almost 12 months apart – is the sum total of his senior 15s experience to date. This is in stark contrast to three of his former Ireland Under-20 team-mates, Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Porter and James Ryan, who all played significant roles in Ireland’s superb Grand Slam success in the spring.
Because of the demands that come with the Sevens game, Keenan has spent a large portion of time away from Leinster’s UCD base. Although he admits it can be difficult seeing young starlets like Jordan Larmour blossoming in his absence, he instead views his current situation as a potential springboard for 15s rugby.
“It is tough, but I think the Sevens develops you as well and you’ve seen the platform that it has given the likes of Barry Daly and Adam Byrne. How they’ve propelled themselves through the Sevens into Leinster,” he explained.
“It’s definitely a good platform to build yourself from. That’s sort of the way I see it. I feel it has improved me a good bit. Hopefully it will be beneficial for me for the 15s career.”
It was September 2016 that Keenan first became involved in the IRFU Sevens Programme, but it was not until last year that he made his competitive bow in the Rugby Europe Sevens Grand Prix Series. While he now has a firm grip on the all-encompassing nature of the game, he acknowledges there was an initial bedding-in period.
“The pace of the games, obviously it takes a while to get into it and to get that fitness level required. It’s also tough adapting to the systems of the Sevens. You’re constantly working in your pods of three, but it’s all about getting the game-time with the Sevens and the transition is natural enough.”
Whereas New Zealand are the team everyone seeks to emulate at 15s international level, it is Fiji who have traditionally set the benchmark for what can be achieved in the Sevens game. The Fijians had to settle for a third place finish at the 2013 World Cup (New Zealand were the overall winners), but they bounced back to win gold at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Keenan has faced the Fijians in previous tournaments where it has usually proven to be a steep learning curve for Ireland. Should the teams cross paths in San Francisco, the young Dubliner reckons they could get a lot closer than they have done in recent encounters.
“That’s a serious, serious challenge playing against them (Fiji). They’re incredible athletes. You feel you’ve been chasing shadows at times (when you play them) and their offloads are incredible, but I suppose they are beatable,” he acknowledged.
“We saw that in the last (World Series) leg in Paris when Kenya and England both beat them. I look forward to playing them again. I think we can definitely do better than our previous results (38-12 and 38-5 losses) against them this summer have shown.”
Ireland were ranked 16th for the Sevens World Cup and will face Chile in their opening fixture in San Francisco on Friday (kick-off 3.35pm local time/11.35pm Irish time) (live on eir Sport 1/www.worldrugby.org live streaming in certain countries/highlights on ITV 4). The winners will face World Series champions South Africa in the last 16, while the losers will move into the Bowl quarter-finals.
The Ireland Sevens jerseys are available to buy online here from Elverys Intersport, official sports retailer of the IRFU.
IRELAND MEN’S SEVENS Squad (2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens, AT&T Park, San Francisco, USA, Friday, July 20-Sunday, July 22):
Robert Baloucoune (Enniskillen/Ballymena/Ulster)
Jordan Conroy (Buccaneers)
Shane Daly (Cork Constitution/Munster)
Billy Dardis (UCD) (capt)
Ian Fitzpatrick (Lansdowne)
Foster Horan (Lansdowne)
Hugo Keenan (UCD/Leinster)
Terry Kennedy (St. Mary’s College)
Harry McNulty (UCD)
Bryan Mollen (Dublin University)
Jimmy O’Brien (UCD/Leinster)
John O’Donnell (Lansdowne)
Greg O’Shea (Shannon)
IRELAND MEN’S RWC SEVENS Fixtures –
Friday, July 20:
Pre-Round of 16: Ireland v Chile, AT&T Park, San Francisco, 3.35pm local time/11.35pm Irish time
Saturday, July 21:
Sunday, July 22:
More details on the Rugby World Cup Sevens are available here. Tickets are available to purchase here via the tournament website. There are single-day tickets in all seating categories and three-day tickets.