Keatley renews rivalry with old friends as Connacht 'legacy' bears fruit
Ian Keatley may just have been one of the many skilled hod-carriers out west in recent times but he is not surprised that the firm foundations laid down in Connacht see the province pitch up in Thomond Park tomorrow evening as early Pro12 league leaders.
The Dubliner has already spent more time at Munster than he did at Connacht - he ended his three-year stint out west with a move south in 2011 - but he is preparing to come face to face with the "legacy" which he and so many other valiant colleagues helped to construct.
"I've been really impressed with what they have achieved in recent times," says the out-half. "I think what they have really improved on in the last couple of years is the strength and depth in their squad.
"The average age in their squad is around 23-24, even though John Muldoon takes that up a bit! They really have come on a lot in the last couple of years.
"They have got some real quality players in. They are really building at the moment and they are really competitive as you can see from their position in the league table. They are top of the league and that is our focus, we want to win and be top of the league.
"They have got a few over us up in the Sportsground and they beat us in a pre-season friendly in Thomond Park also. They come here with a lot of confidence and we know the threats they will pose.
"We are just trying to focus on our own game really. If we can bring the physicality and continuity we have been bringing to games so far this season, then we could come away with a victory.
"We know it is going to be very tough, as Connacht are a very good team.
"When I was there, the aim was to become a more competitive province and get higher up the table. They aspired to having a good squad with strength and depth.
"I think over previous years they didn't have that strength and depth, but you can see now that they can put out two different squads for Challenge Cup matches and they are getting stronger.
"They proved that by winning back to back in the Challenge Cup with two different squads. They are competing at the top level and they are top of the table at the moment too. They are the ones to beat.
"Nothing has really changed since I was there. That was the goal. That was the legacy they wanted when I was there. It has taken them a few years to get there, but that is great for Irish rugby, its great for competitiveness.
"It is great that they are competitive, but I am with Munster now and my focus is to win for Munster."
And, while there was once a time when Keatley (28) would have urged his erstwhile team-mates to stick together, his current allegiance renders him open to the prospect of recruiting one of Connacht's brightest stars, Robbie Henshaw.
"I think Munster would like to sign any good player, but at the moment Robbie is contracted to Connacht," says Keatley (right).
"Robbie has to do what is best for him. If it best for him to stay at Connacht or if it is best for him to move on, Robbie needs to look after what is best for him.
"At the end of the of the day no one is going to tell him what to do. It will be his decision. I am sure whatever he decides to do he will back it 100pc."
Unlike Connacht, who were forced to undergo an arduous trek to and from Siberia within the last fortnight, before dismissing French side Brive at home during an unblemished start to their Challenge Cup campaign, Munster lay idle last weekend following the postponement of their trip to Stade Francais.
"Obviously it is very sad what happened over in France and it is completely understandable why the game was called off," says Keatley.
"We are in a block of 16 weeks of games in a row, so in a way it is a nice way to get a break, but we are going to have to make up for it further down the road. We just have to take it as it comes and prepare for Connacht now.
"We are looking forward to the game. It is first against second. We have an opportunity to go top of the table and it's an inter-pro derby.
"We won against Ulster and we have our own little mini league. We want to be the top Irish team at the end of the season and now we have a chance to get another victory."