Hugo Keenan praises how Ireland’s U-20s performed amid tragedies

Players deeply saddened by deaths of Greig Oliver, Andrew O’Donnell and Max Wall

Senior international fullback Hugo Keenan has paid tribute to the Ireland under-20s for the way they performed under incredibly difficult circumstances against Fiji at the World Championships in South Africa on Tuesday.

In addition to the news that recently graduated St Michael’s College students Andrew O’Donnell and Max Wall had died in separate incidents on the Greek island of Ios last weekend, it was confirmed on Monday that Munster elite performance officer Greig Oliver had also died following a paragliding collision in Cape Town.

A former Scottish international, Oliver was in South Africa to support his son Jack, who had featured off the bench for Ireland in their impressive 30-10 pool stage win over Australia last Thursday and was initially listed among the replacements for their clash with the Fijians in Stellenbosch.

In his absence, an Irish team that included three former St Michael’s students in its starting line-up recorded a 47-27 bonus-point triumph to set-up a semi-final encounter against host nation South Africa in Athlone Stadium in Cape Town this Sunday.

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“It was obviously very, very sad what happened to them, but to muster the strength and courage to go out and put in a performance like that and win for Greig was brilliant. It is obviously very tough on them, but they represented themselves well. It was great to see,” said Keenan.

“I know a few of the lads [in the Ireland senior squad] were very close to him, especially the scrumhalves and a few of the Limerick lads. I haven’t seen them since, but from their social media posts it seems like they were very close to him and that he did a lot for them.”

While it will understandably be difficult for Richie Murphy’s charges to concentrate fully on their showdown with the Baby Boks this weekend, they do find themselves just 80 minutes away from becoming the second Irish team to reach a World Rugby Under-20 Championship decider.

Keenan was part of the crop that made a breakthrough under Nigel Carolan in 2016 and he has fond memories of that tournament in Manchester. Although it ended in a comprehensive defeat to England, Keenan is one of seven players from that squad who has gone on to be capped at senior level by Ireland.

“I really enjoyed that tournament in Manchester. We probably went in as huge underdogs and it was a bit of a surprise, but we had a few great scalps along the way: Wales, who were Grand Slam champions, the Baby Blacks [New Zealand].

“There are a whole list of lads in the [senior] squad now who were on that team. [Andrew] Porter, James [Ryan], Jimmy [O’Brien], [Jacob] Stockdale. Plenty to bring that continuation.”

Speaking on Wednesday in Dublin – where he was announced as a new Irish brand ambassador for Optimum Nutrition – Keenan revealed Ireland’s 42-strong World Cup summer training squad are on a down-week after a fortnight of intense work at the IRFU’s high performance centre.

While he acknowledged the switch back into the international fold hasn’t erased the frustration of losing out to Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle for a second consecutive season with Leinster in the Heineken Champions Cup final, he is hoping to use May’s defeat to the Top 14 side as motivation – just as he did 12 months earlier.

“I’m not going to lie, a few weeks’ holiday is not going to hide the disappointment. It sort of mellows out a small bit, but it’s still at the back of your mind. I’d like to think the final defeat last year would have pushed us on to maybe going on to win the New Zealand series and I suppose success in the Six Nations as well, so you just have to use it as a motivator,” said Keenan.

Meanwhile, it was announced on Wednesday by Leinster Rugby that Guy Easterby has been appointed as their new chief operating officer with immediate effect.

A former Ireland scrumhalf who lined out for the province on 64 occasions across two different spells, Easterby has previously held the positions of chief scout, senior team manager and head of rugby operations with Leinster.