Keatley aiming to make most of O’Gara absence in pivot role
The boots he must fill are gargantuan, but the mind of Ian Keatley admits little self-doubt at the prospect.
Last Saturday, two-time winner Ronan O'Gara's 105th Heineken Cup appearance produced a record 1,303rd point -- but also the hamstring strain that will preclude him from starting this weekend's must-win clash against fellow Pool 1 basement side Edinburgh at Thomond Park.
And so, a year after being recruited by Tony McGahan to deputise for Munster's ageless maestro, the hip gunslinger from Dublin must now assume the mantle of pivotal controller in his first Heineken Cup start at out-half.
If the prospect fazes him at all, he masks it effortlessly.
"I'm just delighted to be playing," says Keatley, who, at 25, is finally intent on stepping from the shadows into the spotlight.
"I've been learning a lot from Ronan. He's a hugely experienced player who's been at the top of his game for 11 or 12 years, so I love learning from him.
"But I'm just delighted to be playing. I'll play wherever they put me. I thought I started off well at 15 last weekend and then I got changed into 10, so I was happy."
Central to the imperceptible shift in game plan deployed by new coach Rob Penney, Keatley revelled in an early-season burst -- when O'Gara was sidelined -- that showcased all the natural ability of this singular ball-playing talent.
Rewind 12 months and he enjoyed a similar breakthrough; only then, much of the rugby world was focused on events in New Zealand and, when the master returned to the fray, the apprentice retreated to the shadows once more.
This time, it promises to be different. It must be. And, with O'Gara facing a fitness race for Ireland's November series, international recognition may also beckon.
"I started those six games last season when the lads were away at the World Cup and I have started a good few so far this season," he reasons.
"I feel I have done reasonably well. I've taken a lot of confidence from my performances. I know there will be a lot of chopping and changing, not only in my position, but everywhere, and that's only going to help Munster move forward."
Worries about his temperament have not entirely been assuaged, particularly as he suffered from the collective implosion that mocked Munster's efforts to emerge from Paris with a win last weekend.
The pressure this Sunday will be immense in front of a demanding home crowd, the majority of whom will have witnessed from afar a dispiriting hat-trick of losses on the road.
Not that Keatley feels any extra strain, though he does admit to a scintilla of nerves.
"First of all, I think I'm just excited, I just want to get out there and play," he says in a languid style, so at odds with his urgent skills in taking the ball to the line in the manner demanded by Penney.
"It's my first Heineken Cup start in the no 10 position, so I'm excited about it.
"I'd say I will be nervous. I think everyone is going to be nervous. If it means a lot to you, you're going to be nervous. And it means a lot to me.
"As I said, I'm just excited. I'm looking forward to it. I've been training all my life in the No 10 position and this is where I want to be, where I want to get to -- to play in the Heineken Cup at No 10."
McGahan offered little in the way of direct encouragement when snapping up Connacht's record points scorer two summers ago, with Penney's entreaties considerably more urgent, despite the player's polite diplomacy.
"Obviously, Tony didn't offer me any promises," he offers. "He said I'd get a bit of game time. He said I'd learn a lot off Ronan when I came down. It's like any player who comes down here, there's going to be competition and you have to earn your right to play.
"Rob has been the exact same, like, everyone has to play well, they have to earn their right to get onto this team and there's so much competition throughout the squad.
"You can even see it in training, there's a bit of bite. Lads want to be playing, they want to be out there."
Ask him if the new style suits him and he dithers uncharacteristically.
"Em, I don't know, I'm just enjoying playing. I just want to get the ball into my hands and have a run, get lads into space," he says.
"I don't think we're confused. I think it is pretty obvious what our game plan is.
"It is an expansive game plan and we are actually getting good mileage from it, but once or twice it broke down last time out.
"Once or twice we should have put in some little kicks and maybe should have taken a leaf from their books.
"Racing kicked the ball 61 times in the match and we kicked it 30 times, so we could have taken a leaf from them -- but we will stand by our decisions.
"We took responsibility on the pitch and it didn't come off. I know talking to the lads, that we have learned a lot from that and we're looking forward to getting back on track on Sunday."
For many Munster folk, there is a genuine wish that Sunday may mark the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Ask Keatley where he sees his future and his answer is unequivocal -- regardless of his great rival's well-being.
Out-half or full-back? "I'm an out half, I've been an out-half all my life."
And his time is now.