Penney backing gives Keatley spur to kick on
VILLAIN, hero, Ireland squad member; Ian Keatley has had an interesting couple of weeks to say the least.
Filling the massive void left by Ronan O'Gara's retirement was never going to be easy for the Sutton native, but in Gloucester last Saturday he gave the most commanding evidence yet that he might just have the stuff to take Munster forward.
It is somewhat unfair on Keatley that Ireland's highest points scorer looms over everything he does this season, while he has the hottest ticket on the horizon, JJ Hanrahan, pushing him from below and making Hollywood plays when given the opportunity.
To some, he is caught between two eras, but the Dubliner aims to make the Reds' No 10 jersey his own -- and more performances like Saturday's will help.
Coach Rob Penney has made him his first-choice out-half from the start of the season and has backed him throughout the campaign.
Even when he was at his lowest ebb after missing a succession of kicks that cost his side the game at Ravenhill two weeks ago, it was Penney and backs coach Simon Mannix who called and assured him he was still the man before the squad re-assembled for the Gloucester game.
The fly-half repaid that faith with his most complete display in a red jersey as Munster booked their place in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.
"A player knows when he plays well and he doesn't need to be told by anyone else," Keatley recalled. "I was bitterly disappointed after the game against Ulster and although I let myself down, I also let the players down, I let a lot of fans and my family and friends down, but they rallied in behind me during the week, even on Saturday and Sunday.
"I hadn't put it behind me, but I knew if I was going to move on you do have to forget about it and Gloucester was firmly on the front of my mind all week and I was looking to put down a marker.
"On the Saturday, I went out to the driving range and hit a few balls aggressively down the range and I got a bit of stress relief out of that.
"I got a call off Rob and Simon on the Sunday and they said, 'No worries, we are going to back you again this weekend'. To have that backing from the management team gave me great confidence for the week and it has given me great confidence moving on."
Keatley's cause has not been helped by a recurring groin injury that means his work-load has to be managed, particularly around his kicking. Hanrahan, too, is suffering from osteitis pubis and, with just two fly-halves in the Heineken Cup squad, they have had to put surgery on hold.
That he has been going well was recognised by news on Tuesday that Joe Schmidt had named the 26-year-old in his extended 44-man squad for the Six Nations and the Ireland Wolfhounds game against the England Saxons.
However, the former Leinster and Connacht out-half, who won two caps in 2009 but has not played for Ireland since, believes the lack of international recognition for himself and a number of Munster players in November has driven their performances in a run that has seen them win 10 of their last 11 games.
"There is a bit of that bitter feeling that there aren't more Munster players in the Ireland squad, particularly that last Ireland squad," he said.
"We all rally together and we knew the only way we were going to get more players into that Irish squad was if we all stick together and play for that red jersey.
"It didn't even need to be said, we all knew if we wanted to get that Ireland jersey we needed to do more and I think we showed that against Gloucester. I think Gloucester was our first real start-to-finish performance to date -- an all-round game with our forwards combining with our backs."
Keatley missed out in November, with Johnny Sexton, Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan ahead in the pecking order, but conversations with Schmidt have left him hopeful for his prospects.
"I've had a bit of chat with him, he's kept me up to date on what things I need to work on and he keeps reminding me that there's not much in it between myself, Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan," Keatley said.
"He stuck with them because they were on the summer tour and he had no reason to drop them and if I am going to break into that squad I need a few more big performances like I had against Gloucester.
"It's nice to get a bit of recognition because I think I have been doing well. It is good for JJ as well because it shows he's close enough as well.
"He and I have been chatting about it and we can't see a reason why myself and JJ can't break into that Irish squad, the two of us together. It's nice to have your name in there, whether I'll be in there for just the Saxons game.
"I'm just going up there to make an impression. Eric Elwood once told me, everyone's watching each week. Hopefully, with this England Saxons game, I'll get an opportunity so I can show them I can step up to another level."
That starts against Edinburgh, the last chance to impress before going into camp on Monday.
Things haven't always gone his way, but the fly-half has faith in his ability to make an impact and, after his display of character in Gloucester, you wouldn't bet against it.