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‘It’s Turn The Page Straight Away’ – Keenan

‘It’s Turn The Page Straight Away’ – Keenan

Hugo Keenan is congratulated by Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose after scoring his second try against Scotland on Saturday night ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

It was a case of job done and on to the next one for Hugo Keenan and Ireland after a convincing 36-14 bonus point win over Scotland saw them finish top of Pool B at the Rugby World Cup.

This is the third time in four World Cups that Ireland have claimed a clean sweep of pool victories, but they will need no reminding that there were painful quarter-final exits in 2011 and 2015 after pool-winning performances.

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It certainly feels different this time around, though, and despite a team of the calibre of New Zealand facing them in next Saturday’s quarter-final, their historic 2022 series win over the All Blacks, coupled with current form, has Andy Farrell’s men going in as pre-match favourites.

Keenan is one of 17 players in Farrell’s RWC 2023 squad who were not involved in the quarter-final defeat to New Zealand in 2019. Since then, Ireland have beaten Ian Foster’s side three times in four meetings, including the summer tour triumphs in Dunedin and Wellington.

A try scorer that night at the ‘Cake Tin’, Keenan has continued to pop up with some important scores on the biggest stages. He crossed against France and Italy during this year’s Grand Slam, and his first half brace in the Scotland game took his haul at his first World Cup to three.

“It’s always nice to score. It was a lot of hard work done by the forwards, and a few good passes from Garry (Ringrose) and Johnny (Sexton), to put them in,” admitted the modest full-back, who has run in a dozen tries in 35 international appearances.

“Jeez, I’d a bit of an easier ride than some of the forwards out there. There was a lot of defending to be doing. The forwards deserve full credit, they were top class for us.”

Determined to mark Peter O’Mahony’s 100th cap with a suitable result, Ireland had to make the most tackles (195) of their tournament so far, weathering a couple of first half storms from a fired-up Scotland.

65% was also Ireland’s highest percentage of possession kicked during the pool stages, with Keenan, who played the full 80 minutes again, heavily involved in both defence and attack. Only himself and Bundee Aki have played every minute of the World Cup campaign so far.

The 27-year-old made 96 metres from 11 carries, and put in five kicks. He covered his angles well to cope with what Finn Russell and Ali Price could throw at him when putting boot to ball, and landed an important tackle when the dangerous Darcy Graham cut inside.

Keenan’s composed anchoring of the back-three was all the more vital given the injury-enforced losses of Mack Hansen and James Lowe. Ringrose and Jamison Gibson-Park coped admirably when shifted out to the wing, albeit that the Scots found space out wide to score two tries.

“We were just looking to get the job done today. It was a huge occasion for us. It was a ‘must win’ and it had sort of been in the pipeline for a few years now,” the former Ireland Sevens star told Virgin Media Sport, referencing that the pool draw was made in December 2020.

“I think it was made a bit extra special with it being Pete’s 100th cap. There was a lot on the line for him, and he deserved a team performance and deserved a win.

“So I think we really gathered around him and did the job for him and for the fans out there. It was a really special one, a great atmosphere.”

Ireland’s performance in the first half was particularly impressive, shutting out Scotland and scoring four unanswered tries. Their percentage of possessions that did not end in an error or turnover was 83%, the highest in Ireland’s tournament so far.

Their red zone efficiency was also noticeably up, indeed it was the highest points-per-entry tally they have managed in pool action. They had just one more entry than Scotland but less time and phases, showing it always comes down to taking your chances.

The quality that Scotland have, you have to put in a top, top level performance. I don’t think we had certainly gotten to that stage in the warm-up games or in the first three pool matches.

“We were striving for that performance and there was a lot on the line today, so it was a good day to do it.”

While the video review will be a mostly positive one, Farrell’s charges did leak those two quick-fire tries to replacement Ewan Ashman and Price during the final quarter.

Defence coach Simon Easterby said it was ‘disappointing to concede a couple of tries but the lads put in an incredible shift, and we also missed a few chances to score some more points’.

He added that ‘the work we had done in that first half set a brilliant foundation for the result’. Ireland will need that and much more when they return to the Stade de France to face New Zealand, who have a longer turnaround given they played Uruguay on Thursday.

Keenan added: “Literally it is turn the page straight away. It was mentioned in the changing room already, getting our recovery in and going again. This is exactly where we want to be. It’s building now.

“A lot of lessons, especially in that last 20 (minutes), to learn from, because we’ll need that full 80-minute performance next week.”