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Hugo Keenan’s decision to chase his Olympic dream shows what sport can be about

The Leinster and Ireland fullback will take up with the Olympic Sevens squad after the Champions Cup final

Earlier this year in a nondescript room at Irish rugby’s high-performance centre in west Dublin, Hugo Keenan was asked about Sevens rugby. At the time both the men’s and women’s Irish teams had qualified for the Paris Olympic Games in July. Keenan didn’t have the inclination to talk too much about it. Nor did he totally back off.

Antoine Dupont had already taken the decision and agreed a schedule with his club side Toulouse and the French Federation, while Keenan had not hammered out any agreement with 15s coach Andy Farrell and Sevens coach James Topping.

But even with a Six Nations Championship in front of him, the notion of doing what French captain Dupont had done was not far from the Irish fullback’s thinking. Sevens, after all, was the pathway for Keenan’s entry into Test rugby about four years ago.

“You do have to consider it, yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said. “But it’s hard to balance everything and I’m just focusing on the Six Nations. I suppose you’re always a small bit tempted with the idea of playing in an Olympics. Who wouldn’t want to do that?


“It’s an incredible opportunity for the Sevens players. I know a lot of them have done it already in Tokyo. I played a small part in getting them qualified for that, so I suppose back then it was tough to leave that behind. You’re always tempted to see if it’s possible.”

The decision came this week and to those who buy into the idea of chasing the Olympic dream, it revealed a refreshing, permissive side to the strict demands of professional rugby and cheerfully casts Keenan as a champion of personal ambition.

Zebo retires, Keenan to the Olympics and Leinster's Champions Cup showdown

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In rugby you earn the shirt, whether it is with Leinster or Ireland, and you hold on to it fiercely. You fight every inch of ground not to let it sit on someone else’s back. But Keenan has followed his heart and in doing so has brought Sevens to the forefront of the public consciousness as an Olympic sport.

His profile as a World Cup fullback and Six Nations Grand Slam champion will draw in a broader audience, as he is the first established Test match Irish player to attempt to move from the 15s game back to Sevens. It is an experiment people will be intrigued to follow.

In making the call Keenan has looked to stretch the limits both of his ability and of his sense of fulfilment within the game. There is jeopardy. While he has decided to try to make the plane to Paris, it’s far from guaranteed.

The group of 13 players that qualified Ireland for the Olympic berth and finished a historic second in the World Series standings this season to top-placed Argentina also want to travel.

Keenan, not unlike GAA and Aussie Rules player Vikki Wall in the women’s programme, is attempting to burst in on a settled, tight-knit squad who have travelled the world together, with some looking for a kind of redemption after a poor showing three years ago in Tokyo.

Chasing the dream also requires sharp elbows to deal with the feral nature of the Olympics. Every move in every sport is a challenge just to set foot in the Village. In swimming this week Danielle Hill became the first Irish woman to swim under 50 seconds for the 100m backstroke.

To qualify for Paris, she had to set a new Irish record. She did it.

In rowing the boat qualifies for the games, which means that the athletes who earned Ireland’s place at the Olympics are not necessarily the same crew that will compete for medals. The same applies in sailing, and in 2008 a dispute arose over the choice of the Irish representative for the Star class at the Games in China.

It was sailors Max Treacy and Anthony Shanks that qualified the Irish boat. “The greatest moment of our sporting careers” said Treacy shortly after their success in Miami.

The pair had run an eight-year campaign, were the top-ranked Irish boat and made the cut at the World Championships. However, the Royal Cork team of Peter O’Leary and Stephen Milne were chosen unanimously by the Irish Sailing Association (now Sail Ireland) for the Olympics.

Brutal decisions come for free.

Obviously, for Keenan, the lure of the Olympics is as intense as it was for New Zealand’s Sonny Bill Williams, Australia’s Samu Kerevi and Fiji gold medallist Semi Radradra.

The gravitational pull of the five rings acts on people in different ways.,Keenan has decided to forgo the summer tour to South Africa and take a punt at achieving something no Irish player ever has – a Grand Slam, Six Nations Championship and an Olympic medal.

Ever understated, the Irish fullback won’t make a fuss, although his participation is a significant statement for rugby Sevens as a sport.

There is also a broader message. Sport isn’t always about winning and losing. Sometimes it’s about discovery, hope, exploration and experience – and even in the dog-eat-dog world of professional rugby, you can still step out of your lane, and chase your wider dreams.