Thursday 30 March 2017

Western project facing its biggest threat from within

The impending loss of Ian Keatley to Munster sums up Connacht's dilemma, says Brendan Fanning

W e are about to witness the long goodbye. Less than three seasons since they went to Connacht, Ian Keatley, Sean Cronin and Fionn Carr have embarked on a lap of honour -- starting tomorrow at the Sportsground against Munster -- that will take until early May to complete.

They are a mixed bunch: Carr has proved he can make an impact in the pro game; Cronin is already doing the same thing in the international arena; and Keatley is somewhere between the two. All are keen to kick on. And Connacht are not sure exactly what the future will look like without them.

Keatley's case is the most pressing. The emergence of Jonny Sexton three years ago, after two seasons finding his way around Donnybrook, gradually and prematurely closed the debate on Ireland's problems at 10. Then the issue became one of who should be picked -- O'Gara, the master, or Sexton, the impatient pupil -- rather than what would we do if anything happened to O'Gara. Because Sexton quickly became so good people forgot that our depth in this position is puddle stuff.

And it still is. If Declan Kidney had got his way in Ulster, with Paddy Wallace as the regular outhalf, then we would have a full house of contenders, but clearly Brian McLaughlin wants Wallace as a 12, even though the Ulster coach also has issues with his other 10s, Ian Humphreys and Niall O'Connor.

And that's why we need to see more of Keatley. There is definitely a vibe about the 23-year-old that the first phase of his induction to professional rugby is now well and truly over. Three seasons ago, he couldn't hold down a place at 10 on the Clontarf team, which had nothing to do with his ability and everything to do with what they needed, or wanted, at the time -- which was a mixture of consistency and conservatism. Well, mostly it was someone to kick the ball over the bar, and after a nightmare experience in the AIL one day against Ballymena, the confidence was flushed from his system and it affected all the other parts of his game.

Keatley had grown up out the road in Sutton and moved in to Castle Avenue along with Paul O'Donohoe, who had played rugby in Clontarf as a kid. They teamed up together in school in Belvedere and then UCD for a season before moving into the top flight of the league with Clontarf.

"I remember asking Paul one day what I was doing wrong," he says of the slide that followed that Ballymena game. "He was having a really good season that year and I had started really well in the first two games, scoring tries and setting up tries and making breaks, and then after that bad game against Ballymena it just affected my whole season."

O'Donohoe didn't have much to offer other than telling him to keep his head down, which in the circumstances wasn't bad advice for a goal kicker who wasn't kicking his goals.

As a schoolboy, Keatley was always fond of the more adventurous option, but you need your confidence high to keep that up. And were it not for his involvement with the Ireland Sevens, who knows what would have happened between his ears? The freedom of that game not only gave him an escape from the stricture of the AIL but it gave him a shop window to attract Connacht.

It's interesting to compare the progress of himself and O'Donohoe since then. While in 2008 Keatley went west, his scrumhalf partner opted instead to sign with Leinster where Chris Whitaker and Chris Keane were in the queue ahead of him. Since then Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss have arrived and O'Donohoe has started six games. Were it not for the fact that he is blessed not just with an ability to play the game, but a positive outlook to go with it, he would have self-combusted by now. Some day soon O'Donohoe will take his resilience and turn it into a meaningful career away from Leinster.

In the same period, over in Galway, Keatley has started 53 games, plus another nine off the bench. Even though Troy Nathan, Andy Dunne and Tim Donnelly were all on the roster, he didn't have to stand in line. That exposure developed him as a player and sold Tony McGahan on the idea of getting him down to Munster for next season. Of course the risk for Keatley is that he might get a glimpse into O'Donohoe's world. Munster may be stumbling right now but it's not because their star turn has lost the ability to shine. Invariably when Ronan O'Gara is going well then so are the team. Not now. If anything he is demanding more of himself and those around him as he gets older.

"Once Munster came in for me, I didn't automatically snap at it," Keatley says. "They have the players and the coaching set-up and unbelievable fans and a massive stadium as well, but I did think about Connacht and the benefits that I've gained and still am gaining here. The game time week in, week out has been really beneficial but you also get benefits of playing with players like Paul O'Connell. Even if I was sitting behind Ronan O'Gara, I'd be learning from him as well. I never really got that down here. I was like the main number 10 after a while and I was like trying to teach other lads, and it's not as if I know everything. This will be an opportunity to play with a lot of quality players."

And what about challenging O'Gara instead of admiring him? How soon before he misses what he had in Connacht if he's not sufficiently active in Thomond Park?

"I've thought about that. I've thought about staying in Connacht where I'd be guaranteed at least 20 games a season -- maybe more. But I've done nearly three seasons here now. If I really want to start contending for playing for Ireland -- which I want to do even more -- then I need to be playing at Heineken Cup level.

"I told the Connacht lads that I would have loved to do that in Galway but by the looks of things that mightn't happen for another two or three years. I really emphasised that I wanted to do it with them but I had to look at myself. I have to back myself. Yeah, Ronan O'Gara's there but I have to learn from him and keep trying to push him. The Munster set-up would like a bit of competition there as well. And I know I have big shoes to fill with Paul Warwick leaving as well. I do believe in my ability and hopefully I can start showing how I can play there."

Replacing Keatley will be hard for he has done a fine job. How they go about filling that gap is an issue in itself. Connacht are now, technically if not financially, on an equal footing with the other provinces. This will entitle them to have on their books four 'high-profile' non-Ireland qualified players as well as a 'special project' player, ie someone who is young enough to become Ireland-qualified (after three years).

They will also be able hang onto one 'retained player' in the way for example that Leinster can keep Stan Wright, or Ulster can keep Simon Danielli -- this was a dispensation if you like from the IRFU policy limiting the provinces to five non-Ireland qualified players. And that dispensation will disappear at the end of next season.

Currently the professional game board in Connacht are busying themselves with financing the brave new world out west. Eric Elwood will hope that somehow they can strike gold for he wants to replace like with like. Consider that a wet week after Connacht are granted equality status by the IRFU they lose their three best players. Happy Chrimbo there, Eric.

Given that Keatley and Cronin are Test players, even if the outhalf has only two caps to his name, the coach will want high-profile replacements, not apprentices. So his new board will have to come up with some cash to match what the IRFU will pay towards the salary of these players of profile.

This means that they may not be Irish, for none of Leinster, Munster or Ulster are in the business of donating what is currently in use. This is where the IRFU come in. When three weeks ago they announced the grand new departure out west, they specified "commitment from Leinster, Munster and Ulster to allow more movement of selected players to Connacht."

So will they 'select' for Elwood the replacements for the three lads? If so, they might start with Niall O'Connor, who has stalled in Ulster despite getting a sustained run at the start of the season. It was a benefit to Keatley to have an outhalf as the head coach and perhaps it would work too with O'Connor, whose transfer would allow room for Paddy Jackson to get game time in Ravenhill. If Jackson is as good as his AIL form for Dungannon suggests, then Ulster -- who are doing a first-rate job in developing backs -- could have a gem on their hands.

If there is an element of project work about O'Connor then Elwood will hardly take another in the same vein to replace Cronin, the blue chip in Connacht's portfolio. Elwood can point to Cronin's progress at the Sportsground when he is courting other Irish players, for the hooker is proof that a spell over there can work. At the same time though he has to retain the players he has. And players like playing in good teams. Will Jamie Hagan, for example, be more enthused by the arrival of a big-name hooker from abroad, or someone like Jason Harris Wright from Leinster?

Harris Wright might well have it in him to do what Cronin did in Connacht but there is a yearning in the west for some box office names to copperfasten their new status. Otherwise, they will argue, you can't tell them they're in the real world and still ask them to dream on when it comes to getting quality staff. Elwood is now sitting at the same table as his coaching peers. He will demand equal treatment.

Very quickly the depth of the union's commitment to Connacht's new status will be tested. When they were a 'development province' you could ask them to take three cheap and cheerfuls like Keatley, Cronin and Carr and ask them to provide shelter. Now that they are have the four-star sign hanging up outside they will want more of the business market. How they replace the three boys will tell you something about where they are headed.

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