This article first appeared in the Official Matchday Programme for Leinster Rugby’s Guinness PRO14 clash with Zebre on October 23.

Since then, Max O’Reilly has made his senior Leinster Rugby debut, donning the number 15 jersey for the January interprovincial clash with Connacht at the RDS Arena. 

Since the return of rugby in August, after the initial lockdown, when the Guinness PRO14 season finished on a regional basis, resulting in Leinster Rugby clinching a third consecutive title, few will have enjoyed their playing time as much as Hugo Keenan.

Starring in the province’s final regular season game against Ulster on the wing, Keenan has since been a mainstay in the side across the back three – and has also enjoyed a spell with Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad, his first taste of senior international rugby.

Among the other list of achievements for the 24-year-old since the game’s resumption are a European debut as well as a first appearance in a final for the province, the 27-5 win over Ulster rugby in the PRO14 decider.

Along with Leo Cullen and Farrell, Keenan has been catching the eye of many across the country and abroad, even closer to home.

Meet Max O’Reilly, a Year One Leinster Rugby Academy player with many similarities to Keenan.

O’Reilly, a full back by trade, was impressed by how his new teammate has come back from the extended break enforced by the pandemic and really grasped his opportunity with both hands.

“He has been a pretty good player to watch. He’s not too much older than me so he’s been one I should keep an eye on,” says O’Reilly.

“He’s had about 20 caps for Leinster and now he’s starting for Ireland. He’s definitely one to watch for the future and someone I can learn a few things from.”

One of the main similarities between the two is how they’ve exposed themselves to as much rugby as possible, including Sevens, in order to improve their game. O’Reilly was a fixture in the Ireland side during the Rugby Europe Grand Prix series during Summer 2019.

And, since joining up with the Academy, he’s noticed better recognition in his positioning and awareness.

This year, he’s had an added opportunity to hone those skills through observation by watching Leinster operate from the best seat in the house, albeit a more unusual vantage point – as a ball boy.

With measures around health and safety limiting pitch access, PCR-tested Academy players now operate as the matchday ball boys for Leinster Rugby’s home Guinness PRO14 games, a novelty for the young players.

“It was a bit of craic, I’d never been one so I was looking forward to it. Watching the game from that point of view is pretty interesting.

“There’s no fans so you hear how Leinster are really and how physical it is. It’s a cool way of watching a game.”

Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to put too much of what he has learned into action due to a hamstring injury sustained early in his time in the Academy – a tough beginning for any player trying to make his mark in new surroundings.

The Long Island-born Wicklowman is now just a couple of weeks from full fitness and is hungry to get back out on the pitch but, impressively, has maintained a very positive outlook and managed to make the injury work in his favour.

He credits this to the environment he has been working in at the Leinster Academy and the support that exists for all players, led by manager Noel McNamara who he already knew from his time with the Ireland U-20 setup.

“It was a good period for physical development. I was in need of a few kilos so it was a blessing in disguise. I had time to put on a bit of size.

“The Academy is great craic, there’s great camaraderie and great staff obviously. Daragh (Curley) is my physio and he’s a really good man to go through the journey with.

“Noel’s a great manager but also a really good person and good to talk to. You know he’s there if you need anything whether it’s rugby or life-related, he’ll be there for a chat. I’ve a lot of respect for him.

“I like how he’s to the point, there’s nothing worse than a coach who’d lead you on and tell white lies. He’s to the point and honest with you which is a really important factor when coaching.”

Another big factor in that sense of belonging despite being somewhat on the fringes while injured is that O’Reilly is sharing a house with fellow Academy players John McKee, Martin Moloney and Brian Deeny – he’s surrounded by rugby.

But, that wasn’t always the case.

The 20-year-old happily admits that he was more of a round ball supporter during his formative years, closely following the all-conquering Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo-led Manchester United sides of the late noughties.

During that time he was lining out as a ball-playing centre midfield player for Enniskerry FC and, on occasion, the Wicklow underage sides.

Eventually, the love of both football and United faded, and rugby took precedence during his time in St Gerard’s School in Bray.

“I was probably more of a soccer kid than a rugby kid up until about 10 when I started playing rugby in school,” he explains.

“I played for the county soccer team for two years. It wasn’t too competitive, maybe three or four competitions at U-15, U-16, nothing crazy.

“I played centre mid, or left or right mid. I would have been a playmaker really, rather than the fast player on the wing, the one delivering.

“I thought then I’d stick with it. I wasn’t faced with a big decision but the coaches kind of said I couldn’t balance both and I enjoyed the rugby a bit more than I did soccer so that was that.”

Balance. A word that can sometimes haunt student athletes. At the moment though, O’Reilly says he’s finding it a little bit easier to hit that middle ground between sport and academics.

Currently in his third year of four doing Business and Management in Technological University, Dublin, the move to online lecturing has enabled O’Reilly and other students competing at high level sport to take classes on their own schedule.

He does, however, acknowledge that the wider student experience of college has been downgraded as society comes to terms with Covid-19.

“We’ve never really had the opportunity to go out on RAG week like some of our friends from school.

“Being online was a blessing for me because I can access lectures whenever suits really but, yeah, not being there does make it harder in terms of making friends and group projects aren’t really possible at the moment. It’s a completely different time.

So from Long Island to Enniskerry to Leinster Rugby, what could be next for Max O’Reilly?

He jokingly tells the tale of his grandfather, Reggie, missing out on an Ireland cap in his day due to an injury picked up while skiing. The call never came again.

O’Reilly is determined to make sure that the call will come for him from his province and will be prepared for when that day comes.

“The goal going forward is just to get back playing. I haven’t played a game since the last Six Nations match so just to play any form of rugby, whether that’s Leinster ‘A’ and, please god, someday with the seniors, I’m just taking it step-by-step at the moment.”

Until then, the full back will keep watching at close quarters and learning from those around him.