It will come as no surprise to anyone who has watched the evasive running ability, sharp distribution qualities and exciting skillset of Hugo Keenan in Leinster blue over the last two seasons that he had been a pivotal and integral player during Ireland’s pursuit of HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series qualification in recent years.
The 23-year-old has enjoyed a breakthrough 18 months with Leo Cullen‘s Leinster, earning his first senior start for the province in November 2018 and making nine appearances at full-back up until the suspension of the current campaign, the attributes he developed and honed in the Sevens game on show for everyone to see.
During his two years in the Sevens programme, Keenan, a former Ireland Under-20 international, won 12 caps for Anthony Eddy‘s side, and was a regular presence throughout the key moments on Ireland’s journey to the World Series – the memorable third place finish in London, to the World Cup in San Francisco, and then last year’s qualifying tournament win in Hong Kong.
Recognising the level of competition in his position and the conveyor belt of talent ahead of him at Leinster during his first year in the Academy, Keenan jumped at the opportunity to gain exposure and experience with the Ireland Men’s Sevens and made his debut at the 2017 Moscow Sevens, a tournament Eddy’s side won as they beat Spain in the final.
“I think we even surprised ourselves that week but it was a great way to start my time with the team,” Keenan tells IrishRugby.ie. “It was a brilliant experience to kick things off and, as a team, we just started performing better and better in each tournament, building momentum and confidence.”
From his debut tournament, Keenan became a key member of the Ireland squad as they navigated their way through the European ranks and enjoyed particular success along the way, notably in 2018 when they won the Rugby Europe Grand Prix Series, claimed bronze at Twickenham as an invitational team and earned a ninth-place finish at the World Cup.
“In my second year of the Academy, I pretty much committed to the Sevens programme full-time as we built towards Hong Kong,” Keenan explains. “I knew training and playing in that team consistently would improve my skills massively and just make me a better rugby player.
“I played out-half in the Sevens game and you just get your hands on the ball so much. Looking back now, I appreciate how important that was in my development because it got me familiar with the first receiver role, which is obviously a big part of the way Leinster play and a big part of my role at full-back. That ability to get your hands on the ball and distribute it. It did wonders for my handling skills, my passing and overall decision-making.”
Keenan was part of the squad that endured heartbreak in Hong Kong in 2018 as Ireland fell short of achieving their aim of World Series qualification, but having made three starts for Leinster in the early part of the 2018/19 campaign and then bounced back from shoulder surgery, the former Blackrock College man returned to Hong Kong with Ireland last April.
He recalls: “Once I got back from my collarbone injury, all the focus was on Hong Kong and nothing else. Losing there the year before was one of my toughest moments in rugby and we were so intent on righting the wrongs of the previous year. Unfortunately I got injured in our final group game when I twisted my ankle but it still took nothing away from how special that week was for us.
“It honestly didn’t matter I was injured and missed the knockout rounds and final because all that mattered was qualifying for the World Series and we did that. It was a really special one for me as well because I had my whole family over. My sister had come up from Australia and my cousin came from New Zealand to meet us there so it was a great weekend and memory to have.”
Having helped Ireland earn World Series core team status, Keenan’s final tournament in green was at the Rugby Europe Olympic Qualifier last summer, where a third-place finish guaranteed Eddy’s side a berth in the final Olympic Repechage tournament, which was due to be played in June before the postponement of the Games until 2021.
Keenan’s performances for Ireland in the seven-a-side format, and indeed the obvious potential he showed in his first three starts for Leinster, earned him a first senior contract with the province ahead of this season and there is no doubt his time with the Sevens programme aided his development and broadened his skillset.
“I think the benefits are there for everyone to see,” he adds.
“The experience of playing on the international stage in pressurised environments improved me as a rugby player and the skills you learn and are forced to use under pressure rounded my game in both attack and defence.
“There’s also the physical side of it too. You have to be fit, you have to be well conditioned and when you go back to the XVs game, you’re used to playing at that high intensity which definitely stands to you.”
On the notable highlights from his two years in the Ireland Sevens programme, and there were quite a few, Keenan says the World Cup will always stand alongside the win in Hong Kong as memories he will cherish whatever he goes on to achieve in the rest of his rugby career.
“I was lucky to create so many memories that will stay with me,” he adds. “Beating USA in the quarter-final in London was a special one and then the World Cup in San Fran was incredible. Not many rugby players can say they played for Ireland at a World Cup and it was a great experience for all of us.
“I do get a bit jealous of watching the lads on the World Series this year when they’re off doing well in places like Cape Town and Sydney but it’s great to be able to watch them on that stage. I couldn’t have enjoyed my time in the dressing room with that group of players more.”
You can read our previous My Sevens Experience features with Connacht’s Tom Daly and Munster’s Shane Daly here.