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'They wanted me to apologise to the fans': The apprentice builder who went from Spain to the All Blacks Sevens

By Adam Julian
Jayden Keelan of Palmerston North Boys High School makes a break during the round 1 Super 8 Schools Rugby match between Hastings Boys High and Palmerston North Boys High on June 08, 2019 in Hastings, New Zealand. (Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

Three days before Jayden Keelan was due in Spain to play a second season of club rugby he received a surprise phone call from Tomasi Cama.

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The All Blacks Sevens coach offered the apprentice builder a full-time New Zealand contract.

When Fenix Zaragoza heard Keelan was bailing on them, they were initially very unimpressed.

“They wanted me to apologise to the fans. I was excited to be going back. It was hard to say no to them but a whole new adventure with the Sevens was too big to reject. After I had done whatever I needed to do, they were excited for me,” Keelan told RugbyPass.

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With his impish smile and naturally cheerful personality, Keelan is likable from the outset and easy to forgive. His rugby is not to be underestimated either.

Despite playing just half a season of Manawatu club rugby for College Old Boys, Keelan won the Best and Fairest – Goldfinch and Cousins Trophy. That accolade has been won by All Blacks Kevin Eveleigh (1972), Ken Granger (1975), and Maori All Blacks up-and-comer TK Howden (2020).

Keelan played first five-eighth. In a late-season fixture against Te Kawau, 43-year-old Tomasi Cama appeared in midfield.

“It was at Te Kawau on a bloody paddock they’d just got the cattle off. I put on my ankle braces on and tried to play strategy in the wet, get the ball moving. Tomasi jumped on from the bench and we ended up winning. In the dressing room afterward, he asked me if I was keen to come and have a jam against Tonga. I turned up to the trial in Auckland, did a little two-week camp, and thought that was it,” Keelan said.

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Cama had bigger ideas. He told the press on February 9.

“When I saw him play it was obvious, he has the raw skill set, understanding of the game and great footwork. What is really important in a good sevens player is work ethic; you can’t shy away from the tough stuff and Jayden has the right attitude, so we think he’ll become a great player for us.”

Keelan hasn’t been selected for the fourth round of SVNS in Vancouver this weekend. However, with the All Blacks Sevens sixth in the present standings, they might soon need an additional spark.

“I hope to bring everything I’ve learned over my time of playing footy, a bit of speed, something a bit different I guess,” Keelan said

In Spain, where the overall winner of SVNS will be decided in May and June, the country where Keelan thrived at Fenix Zaragoza.

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“It was unreal. It was only three hour’s drive from Madrid and Barcelona. With rugby, there was a normal stage and a more competitive elite stage. We didn’t quite make the final of the elite stage but we won more games than we lost,” Keelan said.

“The culture was very similar to New Zealand except for the different language. They play on these nice artificial turfs too so the rugby was fast but they do love a kick. There were lots of Argentinians and South Africans who brought the physicality.”

Keelan was born in Tolaga Bay, 45km northeast of Gisborne. His father is Lieutenant Colonel William Keelan. Dad’s service in the New Zealand army meant Jayden attended “at least six schools” before being put in the boarding hostel at Palmerston North Boys’ High School, not far from Linton Army camp.

“I was pretty loose, a shithead actually, because I grew up in all these random places, Malaysia, Fiji, and I wasn’t settled. When I was in Hawaii I really got into my surfing and then my parents put me in Palmy smack bang in the middle of nothing, surrounded by bogans taking exhausts off their cars, That’s when I got into footy. I’ve had some unbelievable times and made some unbelievable friends.”

One of those friends is Wellington, Hurricanes, and Maori All Blacks fullback Ruben Love. In 2019 Keelan and Love played together in a First XV that made the top eight in New Zealand.

“My last year I planned to play fullback. My coaches said that would happen and I was like ‘All good, I’ll get my hands on the ball’ and then Ruben decided to come back so I stayed on the wing,” Keelan laughed.

“We went to Sevens Nationals and Ruben got injured in the first game against the worst team we played in the tournament. We ended up making the top four. We lost to Hamilton by a try and they went on to win the final by 30 points.”

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