Hugo Keenan excited to line up with ‘X-factor’ wings Mack Hansen and James Lowe

By Sports Desk October 11, 2023

Ireland full-back Hugo Keenan is delighted to have “X-factor” wings Mack Hansen and James Lowe fit and ready to join him for a blockbuster World Cup quarter-final with the All Blacks.

Hansen appeared to be a major doubt for Saturday’s Stade de France clash after sitting out training on Tuesday and Wednesday due to a calf problem sustained in last weekend’s 36-14 win over Scotland.

Lowe has also overcome injury – an eye issue suffered against the Scots – to retain his starting role for the crunch meeting with his native New Zealand.

 

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Ireland ended their final Pool B fixture in unfamiliar fashion with a scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park on the left flank and centre Garry Ringrose on the right.

 

Head coach Andy Farrell has been able to name an unchanged starting XV for a titanic last-eight encounter, including a first-choice backline.

“Its brilliant,” said Keenan. “We finished the game with an interesting back three.

“Jamo did a brilliant job, didn’t he? He is such a creative player, so exciting, so he slotted in well on the wing.

“To have the two lads back again brings a bit of X-factor to the back three. I always enjoy playing with them so great news.”

Hansen on Tuesday watched from the stands at Ireland’s training base of Stade des Fauvettes in the northern outskirts of Paris and was again absent on Wednesday, while Lowe took part in both sessions.

Veteran Keith Earls was thought to be pushing for a first appearance since the opening weekend of the tournament before Farrell sprung a surprise with his team announcement.

Referring to Australia-born Hansen, the coach said: “Everyone is very confident that he’s going to be fine for the game.”

Ireland propelled themselves to the top of the world rankings courtesy of last summer’s landmark 2-1 tour success in New Zealand, in addition to launching their current run of 17 consecutive victories.

Farrell’s in-form side have enjoyed a growing rivalry with the All Blacks, winning three of four meetings during his tenure and four of six overall.

“We haven’t played them for over a year now,” said Keenan. “They will have improved massively.

“They will have taken the learnings from those games and they’ll come out gunning for us as well.”

 

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Lock Tadhg Beirne, who started all three Tests against New Zealand in 2022, feels there is a healthy respect between the two nations.

“Rugby is one of those games where, when you go on to the field, you go to beat the crap out of each other for 80 minutes and when you step off it, you’re very happy to grab a beer with your opposition number and enjoy the moments afterwards,” he said. “It’s no different with New Zealand.

“One thing I will remember from New Zealand is after the last Test, we had beaten them and we ran out of beer pretty quickly.

“The New Zealand squad were pretty quick to bring in their beer and leave us celebrating. That’s respect too, off-field respect.

“It will be no different on Saturday, we’re both going to go at it for 80 minutes and we’ll be very happy to walk in and have a beer in the changing room with them, for sure.”

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    The Real Madrid-bound attacker sustained a blow to his nose after an aerial challenge with Austria's Kevin Danso before Mbappe was withdrawn on Monday.

    France held on for a 1-0 victory in Dusseldorf to move level with fellow Group D leaders Netherlands, but Deschamps will have to sweat over Mbappe's fitness before facing Ronald Koeman's men on Friday.

    "[His] nose is not good at all," the France head coach, who hit 100 wins in charge of his country with the victory over Ralf Rangnick's side, told reporters.

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    The former Paris Saint-Germain man remains without a goal from a total of 18 shots in the tournament, while he has registered 12 strikes from 39 attempts at the World Cup.

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    N'Golo Kante was named as the Player of the Match after his efficient display in midfield, having only returned to the international setup for this tournament after a two-year absence.

    No France player made more successful tackles than Kante's two (level with Jules Kounde), while the midfielder's pair of interceptions marked the most for Les Bleus.

    "Everything was not perfect but we have the result we wanted, this is a good start," Kante said. "There are solid foundations, we have to be more efficient.

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    The defeat ended a run of seven games without a loss for Austria in all competitions (W6 D1), while it was only their second reverse in their last 17 matches (W12 D3).

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    "I think no one can accuse the team of not being engaged enough, not running enough. They gave their everything.

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    Kylian Mbappe's quick feet did for Austria's defence in Dusseldorf, as the soon-to-be Real Madrid forward beat his man and whipped in a ball that was inadvertently turned home by Maximilian Wober.

    That proved to be the decisive moment for Les Bleus, though Mbappe could have put an entertaining contest to bed midway through the second half, only to miss when one-on-one with the Austria goalkeeper, from a chance that registered a 0.6 expected goals (xG) value.

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    Les Bleus have won their sixth consecutive opening game of a major tournament, the longest current run of any European side.

    Austria, meanwhile, saw a run of seven games without a loss (W6 D1) come to an end. It was only a second loss in their last 17 matches (W12 D3) for Ralf Rangnick's team.

    France are the first European side at major tournaments to benefit from 10 own-goals, four more than any other side (Germany next best on six).

    Deschamps fielded France's youngest starting XI at the European Championships (27y 273d) since June 26th 2012 against Spain (27y 079 d).

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