Sunday 30 April 2017

'The worst thing was talking to mom on the phone, she broke down crying' - Ian Keatley on dealing with jeers

Every trial endured and weathered in the right spirit makes a soul nobler and stronger than it was before. WB Yeats

‘I don’t need people booing me or telling me that I had a bad game, a player knows how he has done,’ says Munster’s Ian Keatley. Photo: Sportsfile
‘I don’t need people booing me or telling me that I had a bad game, a player knows how he has done,’ says Munster’s Ian Keatley. Photo: Sportsfile
Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

There are few tougher journeys than walking off your home pitch to a chorus of boos. It's the kind of feeling that can break a heart and a man. Especially when the ground is Thomond Park and your team is Munster.

It's not supposed to be like this. This is a fortress. This is the place where the players are protected by the 16th man - the crowd. These are the fans widely regarded as among the best in the world. And they are booing you.

Yes, you had a bad day at the office, you're the first to admit it, but this is salt in the wounds. "It hurt," says Ian Keatley of that December night in 2015 when Leicester came to Limerick and inflicted a 31-9 defeat on Munster in the Champions Cup. The supporters were frustrated, fed up and impatient so in that moment a number of them decided to make their feelings known.

"Over anyone who was there that day I was most upset that we'd lost and I hadn't played well. I don't need people booing me or telling me that I had a bad game, a player knows how he has done. All players go back and scrutinise the game but I understand they are fans who have paid in and are entitled to their opinions. The worst thing was talking to mom on the phone a day or two later, she broke down crying. I said, 'Look mom, it's fine, these things happen, I'll bounce back'."

But it wasn't as easy as just bouncing back and Keatley struggled on and off the pitch. He tried to build himself back up, spoke to sports psychologists, his friends, team-mates and coaches, but it wasn't easy.

"It's so personal," he says. "People will tell you it's alright; deep down as a player you know yourself it's not. It's especially tough when you are trying your hardest. I got tweets saying, 'Is Keatley not practising his place-kicking', obviously I couldn't work harder in training but people don't see the hours, weeks, months and years that you put in. They just see you having bad moments in a game and judge you on that."

The abuse was relentless. In this modern digital world, keyboard warriors lurk, waiting for an opportunity to kick someone when they are down. They think they are typing words that mean something only to them and seem oblivious to the pain they can cause. Responsibility and consequences aren't for them.

When Keatley tweeted an entertainment show recommendation that his friend was involved in he got an instant reply telling him his time would be better spent watching DVDs on Jonny Wilkinson. There was no let-up. Looking back, it affected him more than he realised at the time.

"I wasn't cracking jokes anymore; I wasn't listening to music, I love listening to music. In the car, on the way in to training I'd have my radio off, I was constantly thinking. Weird things go through your head; I wondered, 'Why am I putting myself through this?'."

On the pitch it was difficult too. His confidence was shattered and his rugby suffered further. "In the weeks after that game I remember setting up kicks and it was like I've never seen this before. I'd been practising all week and it had been going well. Then in a game I'm thinking this doesn't look familiar. It was so strange; no matter what I was doing it wasn't working.

"It was a bad season for everyone; myself and Anthony (Foley) got the brunt of it. There were 15 players on the pitch, a big squad and a whole backroom, everyone was trying. Everyone knows we had a poor season; it was nothing to do with lack of heart or effort.

"Sometimes when you are trying so hard, it backfires, you are not being natural, and you are not doing what you normally do. It's almost like you are saying don't mess up so often that you are inevitably going to mess up."

Towards the end of the season Rassie Erasmus was appointed director of rugby at Munster. Keatley put his head down and got to work, things began to settle as the new season got under way. But little did he know that his team's world was about to be turned upside down with the shock death of Anthony Foley in Paris last October.

"I thought maybe he was sick but I never thought it would be anything worse than that. It was such a shock. We've all been out to his house and know Olive and the kids. All I could think about was them. He was so great at bringing everyone together. When I got my cap against Italy he brought all the squad out to his house to watch the game and have pizza."

Keatley feels that all their head coach ever wanted was to get the connection back with the players and the fans. For Thomond Park to be sold out and for the team to be winning matches just like the good old days. In the weeks and months that followed, Munster returned to winning ways. The hopes and dreams that Foley had for his team were being realised. What a difference a year can make - back in a European semi-final and going well in the Guinness PRO12.

"A lot of things changed, we are all singing off the same hymn sheet," says Keatley. "There is a system there, we all know it now. I think the Axel factor brought that emotional side. In a way he has taken that pressure off us. Rassie says there are a lot more important things out there than rugby, if you get beaten by a team that is better then there is nothing you can do. All he wants is to see effort, hard work and commitment and he'll be happy, he has taken the pressure off. He said to me and the hookers if you miss a kick or a throw it's ok as long as I see you working on it all week.

"He knows that we don't want to miss kicks and that no hooker wants to miss throws. He put the basic structure in and the passing of Anthony brought back the connection with the fans. We have the systems but if you have the systems without the emotion it won't work and vice versa."

According to Keatley, Erasmus has put a system in place that is only as good as the player who is in it. They are expected to bring their own skills and individual talent to the system. They have the freedom to have a go, to take on the guy in front of them, to do what feels natural. But in tandem with that is the discipline of the system, sticking with the team, working together within the system, doing what is best for the team. How each player brings their personal skills to the system is the reason they will get picked."

Munster bringing their training base to Limerick helps too. The players are closer than ever because they spend so much time together. And that closeness yields better understanding and communication on the pitch.

Of course it's a very competitive squad but Keatley is used to that. He expects nothing less when playing for one of the top teams in Europe.

Keatley's contract is up for negotiation in the coming months and despite being linked to several clubs, no move has been confirmed. Tyler Bleyendaal is in pole position right now for the 10 jersey and the competition is set to intensify when JJ Hanrahan returns from Northampton this summer. But when opportunity has knocked Keatley has stepped up, kicking the winning drop goal against Glasgow and earning man of the match against Connacht.

"To be one of the best teams you need competition (for places) and you have to accept that there will be weeks when you aren't involved and others when you are starting. That makes you work harder in training having that competition and in games when you get your chance. Munster have been up front with me from the start about JJ so I can't ask for anything more than that."

He is still a Munster man and that might not change. He became a professional player to play rugby and any decisions made will be done so with that in mind. He's already started planning for life after rugby and that involves coaching Young Munster, finding time to get his badges and learning from every coach he comes in contact with.

The ups and downs of professional sport can be a challenge, yet Keatley wouldn't have it any other way.

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