Sunday 23 September 2018

'This would be our biggest victory in years'

Keatley says it’s perfect time for Munster’s young guns to fire a European warning

Ian Keatley believes his Munster team can rediscover some of their past glories. Photo: Sportsfile
Ian Keatley believes his Munster team can rediscover some of their past glories. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Ian Keatley turns 31 this Sunday but even as the years advance and the clocks move forward, it seems to those watching as if the out-half is growing ever more capable of catching time in a bottle.

Life, however, has its own way of reminding him that the days roll on regardless.

Being a parent, for one; little Beth entirely rapt by every living moment but, as if burning with impatience, growing rapidly day by day; soon, walking and talking.

Having a parent, for another; last weekend, his mother sent him the newspaper clippings following the 19-7 victory against the Scarlets.

"Keatley steers the kids to victory." There, in black and white. And, amidst the red of the dressing-room, he scanned the area and recognised only Billy Holland as a statesman who was his elder.

Building up to a potentially momentous milestone this week, it seemed appropriate to breathe in the relevance of his responsible role within this squad as he contemplated what lay ahead of him.

"You are only two games away from winning silverware, so it is massive," he says, as Munster prepare for a record 17th European quarter-final against Toulon in Thomond Park this Saturday.

"We were talking about it the other day and I am the third oldest in the group, Billy is the oldest and Duncan Williams (currently injured), the second oldest.

"It is quite a young squad and the only way they are going to get experience is to play in these quarter-finals and hopefully semi-finals. It is going to be massive for the squad and we are looking forward to the challenge."

In a sporting landscape where leadership groups have hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, Munster's core of experience will presumably be required to, sportingly, of course, galvanise those younger players Keatley references.

However, the former Connacht and Leinster man provides a different twist; in his opinion, the leadership provided can only be effective if it encourages a mutual engagement from those that are being led.

"You have your leaders in the group but the main bulk of the squad consists of the young players coming through," he notes.

"They determine how the squad goes and how the team plays because the leaders just try and show the way.

"If we're going to win anything this season and going forward, it's not going to be primarily because of the leaders or the coaching staff.

"Obviously, they all help but it's going to be that main bulk of the squad and how we all connect and how we all develop our game further.

"If you've got one group in the squad going left and one going right, that's when you're on the path to nowhere.

"If that main bulk of the squad is focused and we know where we want to go, that's where you get that nice collective morale and that focus.

"That's when the leaders step forward and support the guys."

There is support needed, of that much we are certain.

The injury catalogue is well-known; so depleted, Munster must convince themselves they are more capable of toppling Toulon than they were of downing Saracens last season at the semi-final stage.

Should they do so it would rank alongside the coup at the Stoop back in 2013 at this stage when Paul O'Connell shepherded an equally inexperienced smattering of players to victory.

Certainly, Keatley thinks it might even surpass that and all other recent one-off successes.

"I think for this current squad, yes," he responds. "Since I have been here, I have had five different head coaches, then there is the amount of players that have come in and come out over the past couple of years.

"For the whole squad, there is the confidence of the young lads coming in, the likes of Stephen Fitzgerald, Calvin Nash and Jack Stafford.

"It adds another layer and that's why you build a squad. You are going to get injuries, it is unavoidable with the level of contact and the type of physicality in the game these days. The next guy is going to have to step up.

"I think it would be such a huge achievement for this particular squad at the moment. If we perform against Toulon and come out with a win we have put ourselves in a really good position to go and win silverware."

That is the key for Munster as they seek to end their lengthy trophy drought; proving not only that they can emerge from a titanic tussle such as this, but then maximise the possibilities thereafter.

After that Harlequins win in 2013, they then succumbed to Clermont at the penultimate hurdle; a year later, a Thomond trouncing of Toulouse was followed by an excruciating near-miss against Saturday's opponents.

"It was an unbelievable game," recalls Keatley. "I remember Simon Zebo made that unbelievable tackle on Steffon Armitage in the corner which kept us in it.

"And then we had another chance, I had a kick from the halfway off to the right and if I had gotten the kick it would have put us in the lead.

"Rugby is such a funny game with momentum and swings that if you do put yourself slightly ahead of them they have to maybe chase the game a bit more and you might create more chances, attacking-wise by them trying to pass the ball a bit more."

That script will not alter a jot this Saturday; albeit the stage will be more welcoming for Keatley's men.

"You need to get the lead in these games. You need to start well and you need to build momentum from the start, you can't expect to let them run away with it for the first 20 minutes and expect to come back and win it.

"We need to be on the money from the word go on the weekend. We need to be prepared well all week to make sure we hit the ground running on Saturday."

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