Hugo Keenan’s ‘brothers’ in Leinster understand his need to chase the Olympic dream

Despite his departure to the Olympic Games hurting Leinster, the province did not stand in his way

Just after 2.30pm on Friday in the Civita Metropolitano Stadium, Madrid, Hugo Keenan will line out for Ireland in their first Sevens rugby match of the weekend against South Africa, while Leinster prepare to face Connacht at the RDS in the United Rugby Championship (URC).

Keenan’s decision to chase his Olympic dream and leave Leinster to their own devices for the end of the season was not taken lightly. The Irish fullback expressed the opinion some months ago that the idea of playing in an Olympic Games was an appealing challenge and last week coach James Topping recalled him after a five-year absence.

It will be Keenan’s first Sevens event since he stopped playing in 2019, the year before he made his debut in the Six Nations Championship. Since then, he has been on an ever upward climb, with last year’s World Cup framing him as one of Ireland’s outstanding 15s players.

Keenan’s departure will hurt Leinster, and after last week’s defeat to Toulouse, the URC trophy has taken on a sharper focus. On the flip side it gives other players such as Jordan Larmour and Ciaran Frawley opportunities. But at the business end of a season, Leinster are not in the habit of allowing marquee names to take the off ramp and follow personal ambitions.

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The team doesn’t normally look to harm their own chances of success, yet Keenan’s dream of winning a medal at the summer Games in Paris, for which Ireland have already qualified, was accepted without duress or rancour. Leinster did not stand in Keenan’s way.

“Leinster is a club, a family,” said Jacques Nienaber. “And players have needs and if a player’s need is to go ... it’s almost like if it’s a very important Monday training and a player and his wife are pregnant and they are having their first scan. Is it humane to tell a guy, ‘no, it’s more important to be at the training?’

“I think it is probably up to the player as well if that’s your dream. I mean South Africa is well known for letting players play Sevens and if you think in that way, [from] the squad that won the World Cup in 2023, Kurt Lee Arendse came from Sevens. Commonwealth gold. Cheslin Kolbe, Olympics bronze. Kwagga Smith, Commonwealth gold, Olympic bronze. So there’s a lot of players.

“For me the Olympics is such a big thing. I 100 per cent understand [Antoine] Dupont’s decision. I understand Hugo’s decision. I mean if that is a dream of yours, if you are good enough to compete in both codes ... players also have dreams. So me, I feel [it’s a case of] don’t stand in the guy’s way.”

In Paris the men’s Olympic tournament will start on July 24th. The Opening Ceremony takes place on July 26th, with the semi-finals, classification matches and medal events scheduled for the following day, July 27th. That means Ireland will know if they are in line for a podium place or not before the Olympic Games officially begin.

The Sevens tournament in the Olympics has been on the roster for just two cycles, in Rio 2016 and three years ago in Tokyo. Fiji have won both events, the win in Rio their first Olympic gold medal of any kind. Ireland, though, have been performing well this season and finished second in the table for the World Series.

In that light, Keenan is stepping into a team looking forward to Paris with credible optimism. But that won’t help Leinster.

“Like with Cheslin and them, it’s phenomenal they have an Olympic medal,” said Nienaber. “It’s phenomenal. It’s like having a World Cup medal. I don’t think the club will ever stand in the way of the personal ambitions of a player because we are a family, because we love him, he loves us.

“I promise you that decision tore him apart inside, because I know he feels ‘I’m dropping my brothers here’. But the brothers say ‘listen we understand, we support you with your decision’. I think that’s the beauty of the club. You have to look at the human side of things as well. I must say, in Leinster there’s a big human element in the way they do business.”

Like Dupont and Toulouse, Keenan and Leinster are not the whole picture. France sees the Olympic Games and their scrumhalf’s commitment as almost a question of national duty, while Leinster also take the wider view that an Olympic medal can help the rugby brand both in the RDS and nationally.

The sense for Paris is that, unlike Tokyo when the team qualified by repechage shortly before the games began and didn’t perform, this time preparation has been meticulous.

“That’s the thing about Olympics – it’s the country,” said Nienaber. “The rugby Sevens, you will see [how it resonates]. I don’t know how many medals Ireland will have a shout at, but in the world Ireland’s name will be there [along with] the amount of medals they have won. It’s phenomenal for the country. It’s massive. It’s the biggest sporting event in the world.”

On Saturday Ireland face Olympic champions Fiji and New Zealand in their Pool B before the playoff stages of the mini-tournament contested by the top eight teams after the regular season. Leinster get it. Reflected glory and the five rings. The chance of a lifetime for an unusual talent.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times