Liam Sheedy tuned into the documentary about the Ireland rugby team’s series win in New Zealand over Christmas and as he watched he recognised a familiar set of fingerprints on their success.
“You can see Gary Keegan’s hands are all over it,” the former Tipperary manager says with a knowing smile. “His imprint was everywhere.”
Ireland have come a long way since the Dubliner answered Andy Farrell’s call. In the winter of 2020, the coach knew he needed help.
His team had tanked with a title on the line at an empty Stade de France; disjointed and divided as the coach assessed that they’d “gone into our shells”. Outside the set-up, the knives were beginning to sharpen.
In 2019, Joe Schmidt said his side was “a bit broken” and the damage of that disastrous year hadn’t been repaired.
“The IRFU’s World Cup review had concluded that the players had suffered from “performance anxiety”. Schmidt and his performance coach Enda McNulty moved on.
Having not initially replaced McNulty, Farrell decided to look for some support after Paris.
Former manager Mick Kearney was convinced to rejoin the set-up, while Paul O’Connell was on board by the next Six Nations to add his tactical acumen and forceful personality.
Quietly, Keegan was asked to help on a part-time basis.
Already involved with the IRFU’s Professional Games Board, he’d been working with Leinster where Johnny Sexton was impressed by what he’d seen.
“Isa Nacewa put me in touch with him around that time,” captain Sexton says. “I had a few sessions with him and found him really good.
“He did a little stint with Leinster and then came into the Irish squad, so he’s been brilliant. He’s been great for a lot of individuals. From a team perspective as well, he’s been great.
“His record speaks for itself.”
Initially, he came on board for two days a week but by the time they flew to New Zealand last summer he was all in; a full-time member of the backroom team.
One insider described Keegan as having a “significant impact” on the team’s rise to the world’s No 1 team in his time with the set-up. While Farrell is the main man, Keegan has built deep trust with the team and coaches.
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When Sexton talks about Keegan’s record, he’s referencing his work in building Irish boxing’s medal factory, his influence on the Dublin footballers, the Tipperary hurlers and other successful athletes through his work with Sport Ireland.
Few figures in Irish sport have had so much influence, but Keegan largely keeps his head below the parapet; rarely doing interviews and allowing his work to speak for him. It rings out loudly.
During his inquest into the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Donegal, Jim Gavin arranged a meeting with Keegan. They sat for three hours, dissecting performance and breaking down the Dubs’ environment.
By the following June, Keegan was part of the set-up. By the time they both stepped away in 2019, Dublin had won five All-Irelands in a row.
“That first opportunity to really look back at that season, at the lead-in to that game, that performance itself and for people to be really open about what they were experiencing, to be able to challenge others about their contribution, it turned out to be extremely powerful,” Keegan recalled in an interview with Paul Flynn for The Currency.
“And something that was culturalised and systemised within how we reviewed games and seasons thereafter. We used it as a very, very powerful tool, I think, for the team.”
Sheedy brought him in when he returned to the Tipp hot-seat in 2019 and together they delivered an All-Ireland, with Keegan involved in campaigns to land Liam MacCarthy and Sam Maguire in the same year, while also working with Leinster.
“When I had made the decision to come back in 2019, one of the first phone-calls I made was to Gary,” Sheedy says. “To be honest with you, he’d enough on his plate but in fairness he managed to find the time.
“He’s incredible with individuals, with teams. He doesn’t overcomplicate things, he’s a lovely style and he’s grounded in reality but also really good to connect with people at their level and take the clouds out of the sky, really pare it back to what makes them tick, how they get the best out of themselves.
“In sport, there’s an awful lot that can be done from the shoulders down, but ultimately if you’re not right from the shoulders up it’s not going to happen. Gary Keegan is one of the best in the country; in fact, I’d say he’d stand on a global platform.”
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“Gary Keegan changed my life,” Kenneth Egan says over a coffee in Clondalkin as he recalls the conversations that turned things around in 2008.
Having come up short in three attempts to qualify for the Athens Olympics in 2004, Egan was down to his last chance to make Beijing and he found himself pacing around Keegan’s office.
“I was frantic, three weeks to go and it was make or break. He was sitting down behind his desk and I’m saying, ‘Gary, what am I going to do? What job will I get?’ Crazy stuff,” he says.
“He just said: ‘Stop’, told me to sit down on the chair in front of him. He asked me: ‘What session do you have now?’ It was a bag session. He said: ‘Go down and wrap your hands for the bag session, just focus on that’.
“It was in that sentence that the penny dropped.
“I was looking at outcomes, possibilities; ‘What if? What if? What if?’
“I can’t pick the judges, change the referee. Just control what I can control, focus on performance, on the bag session. Have lunch and then focus on your next session.
“I used to be very hard on myself as an athlete. He says, ‘Kenneth, I know you have talent. You know you have talent. But, when it comes to the big occasions you bottle it, you flop. Why?’ He says: ‘You need to take ownership of your talent’.
“We were sitting on a bench in Russia and, again, the penny dropped. I needed to stop telling people I was good, I had to produce it; show I was good enough to win on these big occasions.”
In 2003, Keegan stood before Egan and the other elite Irish boxers and drew a line on the floor.
He didn’t have a big career as a fighter, but after stints as a barman, a sailor, a soldier, and a small business owner, a labourer before turning his attention to the great passion in his life; he came up with a plan to weaponise the talent in Irish boxing.
“I didn’t know him from Adam,” Egan recalls. “We didn’t need an existing coach, he was anonymous and that was brilliant.
“He didn’t smile, he didn’t laugh, he didn’t come down on to the gym floor. He was the director, up in the office, organising the High Performance; building it, making connections with different countries for training camps, all that type of stuff.
“When he came down the first day, he drew the line with his foot across the floor and said, ‘I’m starting the High Performance Programme, anyone interested we’ll be training full-time, we’ll compete with the best in the world’. We were all looking at each other, thinking this fella is f***ing mad!”
Within five years, he was winning a silver medal in Beijing.
That 2005 trip to Russia summed up the innovation and intent that Keegan brought to the party.
Figuring you had to beat the best to be the best, he took a team of five into the Lion’s Den to see what the gold standard was.
It was also an opportunity to absorb information.
“We were doing a lot of testing on our own athletes,” coach Billy Walsh says from his base in Colorado where he runs the US boxing programme.
“We’d heart-rate monitors on in the ring to see what rate we were getting up to and the Russians were intrigued. You’d think they’d be far ahead in that aspect but they were inquisitive.
“They came over to ask them what we were doing. Zaur (Antia) was able to speak to them in the language, Gary said: ‘Look, if you want tomorrow we’ll put the monitors on you and we’ll put you in the ring, give you the readings on the computer’ and we did.
“Not only did we give them the information but we had the information. It was a bit of Irish espionage in Moscow in the early 2000s!
“One was a twice Olympic gold medallist, the other was twice world champion so we had the data from those guys, what intensity they were getting up to in the ring in their competition – it was phenomenal, we had a really good baseline to work off.
“He was ahead of everybody else; always thinking ahead. Inspiring, pushing the team in a nice way. We were hungry for success, hungry for knowledge.”
During Beijing as Egan was fighting his way to silver and the team delivered Ireland’s first medals since 1992, Keegan was denied entry to the Olympic Village and, eventually, the constant politics forced him out of boxing and into his role with Sport Ireland.
At times, he looked to leave sport behind and he’s successfully moved into the corporate world with his business ‘UpperCut.ie’.
Sport and High Performance, however, keep dragging him back.
“He’s become a mastermind of human performance,” Walsh says of his friend.
“His knowledge in the area is phenomenal, in every team he’s worked with and every athlete he’s worked with their performances have been exceptional.
“He has a track record with teams around the country in Gaelic games and obviously now with Irish rugby. He was a pillar of Irish boxing coming out of the doldrums to becoming what is now a world-renowned, medal machine.
“He is a visionary, he saw way ahead of any of the rest of us.
“He had the human touch, to bring us along. He was inspirational in his speeches, his talks to the team. He made us all feel that we could achieve, it looked impossible but he made us believe.
“When you opened the door there was a sign that said, ‘Welcome to High Performance – Where you only achieve what we believe’.
“At one stage, he decided he better keep going with it having tried to quit and working 9-5, sport kept drawing him back, that’s where he had major success.
“His emotional intelligence is way off the radar.”
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The process is underpinned by calmness, by being present. Between the anthems and the kick-off, the Irish team gather together and breathe.
Their ability to stay together in the maelstrom calls to mind the image of Ciarán Kilkenny raising one arm to communicate a moment of calm to his team.
Mindfulness and meditation are all part of it.
“That’s something Gary’s pushed me to be consistent with it, visualisation as well,” Caelan Doris said.
“Trying to be present. You might see us doing the breath work, taking a couple of deep breaths, that’s come from him as well. Trying to get ourselves back to neutral.”
Some will raise their eyes, but the results are there.
Explaining the moments before he put Hugo Keenan through the gap for his try against France, prop Finlay Bealham said: “It was just about being calm, backing up the work that had been done and executing.
“The biggest thing for me was taking a big deep breath when it was kicked and I got myself into a neutral frame of mind and just stayed calm. That was so important for me.”
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Despite being a serial winner, Keegan doesn’t focus on the result. That, it seems, is one of the big keys to his success.
“When everyone wins something nowadays, you wonder was Gary Keegan behind that?” Egan says with a smile.
“He said to us many times, forget about the outcomes, the results; if you go in there and perform to the best of your ability, what happens, happens. You’ve no regrets then, no one to blame.
“It takes the pressure off yourself.”
They are on top of the world, but Ireland know they need to stay ahead of the pack with a World Cup on the horizon.
“I think it’s where we can make the biggest strides,” Farrell said of the mental side of the game before this Six Nations.
“I think we’ve made a start, I don’t think we’re anywhere near where we can get to.
“The game is a very emotional one, and being able to control those emotions so that we can do what we say we’re going to do is key to us.”
Watching on keenly, Sheedy believes his formula is key to Ireland’s success and can sustain them through this monumental year.
“Previously we would have seen it where maybe the weight of expectation weighed heavily on them, but I don’t see any weight here because Gary would have that weight pushed aside. It’d be all about how they reach their potential, their peak,” he says.
“You can never be sure, but I’d be fairly sure that we’ll get as far as we’re good enough to get to and we won’t be inhibited by expectation, outside influence. Gary would have them primed to perform.
“It’s been building for a long time. I’m delighted to see the impact he’s having, it’s just reward.
“He deserves every accolade, he’s a background man with no ego but it’s great to see – I know by the language, the speak; there’s the GK influence again.
“It’s an exciting journey, I’ve no doubt he’s pivotal. Everyone that’s Irish born and bred is enjoying what they’re seeing.”
You might not spot Keegan in Murrayfield tomorrow, but look closely and his influence will be everywhere in green.