Aspiring Sons: Will Connors and Hugo Keenan’s proud fathers consider how...

Until Will Connors and Hugo Keenan called home, neither they nor their families could keep their emotions in check.

The Connors household was so overwhelmed by all of this that they had to call Will later that day while the Keenans rode the crest of the same wave, having just seen their son and brother making his international debut.

Having both families do this from their living room rather than in a crowded Aviva stadium was another sad episode of the world we currently live in.

If the circumstances were different, Nick and Lelia Connors as well as Paul Keenan and his wife Avril (Dowley) would have been invited to the Irish team hotel last Thursday evening to show off the jerseys – as would parent colleagues Ed Byrne and Jamison Gibson-Park.

When Andy Farrell took over as head coach, he emphasized the importance of family to each of his players. When those closest to them are involved in the shirt launch, Farrell realizes that they have all been on this journey together.

Connors and Keenan in particular have taken a similar path to get onto the international stage. Both 24-year-olds have completed the Leinster system and the Ireland Sevens program.

Their fathers, Nick and Paul, had never missed a game, so it hurt not to be there for the biggest day.

“It would have been very emotional to show off the jerseys,” admits Paul, former president of the UCD rugby club.


“Garry Ringrose called me and said, ‘Look, we can’t do the presentation, but we can do a video’.

“James (Ryan) presented himself to Will and Garry presented himself to Hugo. It was very emotional to miss that.

“We got the two grandmas (Rosalyn Dowley and Brenda Keenan) to make a video. Nick has his people and so does Ed Byrne and Jamison Gibson-Park.


Hugo Keenan is pictured next to his father Paul and grandmother Brenda with his latest PRO14 medal

Hugo Keenan is pictured next to his father Paul and grandmother Brenda with his latest PRO14 medal

“Hugo was emotional about the videos because the two grandmas made two videos for him. They both asked him to give them a try.

“When I spoke to him after the game, he just said, ‘I got my tries for each of the grandmas’. Then he called them to tell them.

“My wife Avril’s father took two final exams (in Ireland) but didn’t get a cap. He had played with Gordon Wood, he was a prop. As Rosalyn said, ‘My Robert didn’t get there but you did’ and she sent that to Hugo in a video. I think he thought that was very special. ”

For Connors, his grandmothers were also at the center of his success story, as they too were affected by the euphoria about last weekend’s victory against Italy.

“There are two grandmas on both sides who were like ten year olds that day,” says Nick.

“It lifts you out of this whole Covid thing for a couple of hours. They’re cocooned, they’re nervous because everything they hear on the news and most of it is not good news. You will be bombed by it.

“It was great to see something that takes them out of everything they have on their own heads. My mother is 82 and she’s down in Waterford – the last week has helped her almost to forget about Covid in a way. ”

While there haven’t been any similar emotional videos this week, both families will go over it all again today as Connors and Keenan compete in the Irish Six Nations Showdown at the Stade de France.

“I would have gone to Paris that morning,” stresses Paul.

“I was nervous earlier in the week. I work on Leeson Street. I thought of Hugo downstairs at the Shelbourne, it was difficult not to be able to run down to him.

“The thing I missed the most that day was the way to the stadium and the national anthem.

“Nick is an encyclopedia of rugby, he knows everything. Every time I thought I should call Hugo, I called Nick instead. Me and Nick called at least four or five times a week.

“There was a nice gesture – one of my good friends is a guy named Dr. Paddy Kenny. Paddy is the orthopedic surgeon who was in the ground that day. I said to him: ‘Paddy, you are my surrogate father, so at the end of the game you go to Hugo. Paddy dropped into a bottle of champagne.

“I saw Paddy go to him, that was really nice. They had the feeling that there was a representative of the Keenan family there. ”

Paul and Nick turned off their buzzing phones before kick-off until they could talk to their sons and later to each other.


Will Connors with his father Nick after his first Leinster game at RDS in February 2018

Will Connors with his father Nick after his first Leinster game at RDS in February 2018

Will Connors with his father Nick after his first Leinster game at RDS in February 2018

Will Connors with his father Nick after his first Leinster game at RDS in February 2018

“I was a thrill on Friday like I normally would,” admits Nick.

“In equine terms, I call it ‘box walking’ – a racehorse that runs around, boxing before it starts. I would be a box walker.

“I got a nice WhatsApp from Syria from the Irish troops. They had a big screen and the boys sang the national anthem.

“They took a picture of it and sent it to me. Maureen O’Brien, an ex-classmate of mine, heads the group out there, she’s in command of the armed forces, so she sent me the picture. She is the first female general in the Irish Army.

“Then Will called us pretty quickly after the game. It was emotional. We were all still caught up. I spoke to him first and then made him the spokesperson for all the girls (Lelia and daughters Ashleigh and Edie) here. They all started crying so I said, “We’ll talk to you later when we calm down!”

“He would be tough on himself and always pay attention to where he can get better. But it was one of the first times he’d said, ‘I think it went well for me Dad’. That got me going! ”

At this point, Nick had just seen Will put on a performance involving a man, while Paul made Hugo’s two attempts on his debut in Ireland.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this before in the ten minutes for the two attempts. We (Avril, daughter Naomi and sons Robert and Andrew) went completely ballistic, ”laughs Paul.

“With every try that was scored, the girls cried and screamed. When Will scored, the roof came off the house, ”Nick smiles.

The Keenans will gather again tonight in the living room of their home in South Dublin, while the Connors will do the same in North Kildare.

You will get ready for another roller coaster ride of emotion that lies ahead, but everyone would love nothing more than to be at the Stade de France.

“I had never missed a game before Covid,” claims Nick.

“To have been there and to experience it would have been extraordinary, but look, Ireland went out and performed, Will stepped, I wouldn’t change anything.

“But if I were to write what the perfect game was, the Carlsberg game, I probably wouldn’t have written it as well as it turned out – for Will personally and for the team.”

Paul, like Nick, has seen the amount of dedication it takes to achieve an international cap and, despite what never feels right from his couch, it doesn’t detract from his immense pride.

“It is just amazing to see your son go and work hard to make his dream come true,” added Paul. “It’s even better in these strange times.”

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