Thursday 22 March 2018

Ian Keatley's career given chance to ignite on biggest stage

Ruaidhri O'Connor on how the out-half's 'clutch' plays have given him edge

Ian Keatley
Ian Keatley
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

For Ian Keatley, there will be little time to drink Rome in this weekend; he goes straight to the Colosseum.

This is the chance he has been working towards for almost a decade of a career in which he has had to meet adversity head-on, backing himself throughout before finally arriving at the top table.

A Clontarf native who left Leinster due to a lack of opportunity and made his name at Connacht, he saw Munster as a passport to success and, after biding his time behind Ronan O'Gara, has been handed responsibility at Thomond Park for two seasons by successive coaches.

Joe Schmidt has been harder to convince, however, and the 27-year-old has again had to wait to gain the appreciation of a New Zealander who demands notoriously high standards from his No 10s.

For two Junes running, Keatley found himself in remote parts of European rugby with the 'Emerging' Ireland side, effectively a bridge between U-20 and the Wolfhounds level, clearly fourth in the pecking order.


Last November, he caught an undercooked Paddy Jackson in the rankings and when Johnny Sexton's concussion troubles emerged after the autumn series, the door opened for one of the two Ians left standing.

Many felt Madigan (below) was next in line, but he was disadvantaged by playing at centre for Leinster, while Keatley has been Anthony Foley's No 10 all season.

From Sale to Clermont and his audacious curled effort against Connacht, the Belvedere boy was delivering from the tee, while showing growth with ball in hand. He was nailing what Schmidt described as "clutch kicks" and the New Zealander was watching with interest.

His combination with Conor Murray was a crucial factor in his selection for tomorrow's Six Nations opener, as was his growth in the game's most complex and high-pressure position.

"You could go back to Johnny Sexton, for a long time he didn't get the starts for Leinster, never mind Ireland," Schmidt reflected.

"He sat behind Felipe Contepomi, he sat behind Isa Nacewa but he worked really hard on his game and put in the hours and we benefited from that as an Ireland squad and certainly Leinster benefited from it when he came of age there.

"Ian Keatley has matured, it's a difficult task being a No 10 at a high-level European club or at Test level, because you have got to control the game, make decisions on the fly and there's a degree of confidence and competence that comes from experience and doing exactly that."

Keatley, Schmidt feels, has used his time well and delivered when it mattered even if Munster's season hasn't gone to plan.

The player himself has spoken about implementing the feedback he has been given by the international management, particularly around his defensive contribution and his goal-kicking consistency.

"His kicking game has been really sound," Schmidt said.

"I thought he got really unlucky in a couple of recent games where he found the really good space in the corner and the ball, in one game against Saracens drifted over the dead ball line where it should have been kicking dead on and it would have been a five-metre lineout for Saracens.

"So he's finding the right spaces and maybe hasn't had massive luck there.

"He has finished off games well in clutch moments. There was one at the start of the season in Edinburgh that he didn't nail. But there was a drop goal at the end in Sale and a clutch kick in Clermont

"That's given us a degree of confidence in him that he can do that for us.

"His (kicking) percentages since Christmas are very strong. Based on that we have confidence that he will kick well."

"He is controlling games better, he's nailing those (clutch kicks) and allowing the team that he's playing for to get their nose in front at the right time or to get the right field position at the right time."

It's not all about the boot either for Schmidt, who recalled the former Leinster protege turning his head early in his career as a provincial coach.

"He's got a very capable passing game and I think his running game - the first time I saw Ian Keatley play I think he was playing 12 or 13 for Connacht and the first thing he did was slice straight through our Leinster defence at the RDS," he recalled.

"Eoin O'Malley thankfully dragged him short of the line. I do think he's got a running game that can threaten as well."

O'Malley was a schoolmate of Keatley and, along with Cian Healy and Paul O'Donohoe, they won Leinster Schools Senior Cup and an U-20 Grand Slam in their formative years.


As a schools star, Keatley must have imagined that higher honours would follow. He won two caps in North America in 2009, but didn't return to the fold for five more years.

Now, in Sexton's absence, he gets his chance to shine. Schmidt is unlikely to ask him to perform miracles and the comfort of having Murray alongside him will help.

"Conor's kicking game, his cover defence game, his speed of pass, all those elements that make him such a good contributor for us," Schmidt said.

"If Conor delivers those he leads anyway and he actually makes Ian Keatley's job a little bit easier because he gives him more time on the ball. He'll make the midfielders' jobs a little bit easier because they'll have the surety of him giving a bit of cover in behind them.

"He'll make other guys' jobs easier because he'll put the ball in the areas of the field that allow us to keep a bit of control of them rather than being exposed. So those facets of Conor's game will be really important to us."

That should help ease the pressure on Keatley's shoulders as he prepares for his Six Naitons debut.

He has always believed that this is where he belonged, now - with Schmidt's backing and Murray's help - it is time to deliver.

Irish Independent

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