Stepping out of the shadows
Having established himself as Munster's top 10, Ian Keatley faces his biggest test, says Brendan Fanning
At a recent rugby prize-giving ceremony for second years in Belvedere College, the rugby director addressed those not in the front line on the issue of sticking to their guns. The thrust of his message was that while they might not be hitting the target at the minute, it's not to say that they won't be next season, or the season after that. Patience and perseverance.
As an example that we all develop at different speeds, he referred the kids to a photograph hanging in the corridor outside the gym. The subject in the photo hadn't made the starting team at junior level, but since then has gone on to carve out a successful career as a professional with two Ireland caps to his name. On the way out they stopped and looked at the smiling face of Ian Keatley, and went away with the message that the scenic route can get you to your destination with plenty of time to spare. He is 27 and in his prime.
You could say that the highest point of that journey arrives in Marseille this afternoon, a few notches above its previous peak – against Toulouse in Limerick three weeks ago. Its lowest point perhaps was back in those schooldays when a pal was giving him grief over his lack or progress in the ultra-competitive world of schools rugby.
"I didn't make the starting (Junior Cup) team because a guy from fourth year came back down and played, and I was sub," Keatley recalls. "I think when it really hit me was when we were going into town one night and one of my friends slagged me about not making the juniors. It just really hurt me that night and I said it to him; I said I bet I'll make the S in fifth year and I ended up hitting the gym a bit more and getting bigger. That's one of the reasons I didn't make J, (they) said I was too small. Fifth year, made the S, and took it from there.
"It was just a bit of slagging but that really stuck with me. 'Sure you didn't even make the Junior Cup'. 'F**k you', that's probably one of the biggest memories, something that stuck out at you."
The circuitous route since then has gone from AIL club rugby with Clontarf, to Connacht (he left the Leinster Academy to try his luck out west) and then, three seasons ago, to Munster in a high-profile move that saw Fionn Carr and Seán Cronin leave Connacht at the same time. It's interesting that Eric Elwood may well be Keatley's new backs coach in Munster for Elwood was deeply upset at the time that three of his star players, who had developed on his watch, upped and left.
"Eh, yeah, suppose I went a longer way about doing it but I've never regretted any decision that I've made in my rugby career," Keatley says. "It's a long way coming but I'm here where I want to be now, starting in the semi-final of the Heineken Cup. I was in the semi last year but I wasn't starting, so it's another step up for me and I'm looking forward to it."
Were there ever any regrets while he was standing in the shadow of Ronan O'Gara, right up until he signed off in such style at this stage against Clermont last season?
"No, not at all. I felt personally that I was nearly ready last year to play in those big games but Ronan was there and, in fairness to him, he played very well in those big games. No, like, at the end of the game, I'm a team player and I want Munster to win. When you step back and look back at your season as a whole, I knew I got better as a player last year. I knew Ronan was retiring so I'd have my opportunity this year. All in all, I think I've taken it pretty well, apart from my injury lapse around Christmas time and a few personal issues as well, I felt I've come a long way since then.
"Even though Ronan was there last year, as an outhalf you have to be a leader and even in the matches when I played last year, I took control of meetings and stuff like that. I got the guys playing the way I wanted to play; obviously me and Ronan play different styles so whenever I was on the pitch I wanted them to play the way I wanted them, Ronan vice versa. This year, I think with me and JJ (Hanrahan), I think we play similar styles, it's much easier to run. So yeah, although I did step up last year, I feel I've stepped up even more this year and I have become a leader in the group and the lads have got behind me on that and are respecting me a lot more for that."
It helps that O'Gara is out of sight, in Paris, for Keatley would have struggled if his predecessor had moved straight onto the coaching staff in Munster. For a while this season, every time he addressed a placed ball supporters were thinking of the days they took that sort of thing for granted. An ongoing groin injury for Keatley, which was at its worst pre-Christmas, literally cramped his style. The first game of the New Year was in Ravenhill, with a nine-game winning run to defend. It ended there, with at one point the outhalf having a horror sequence of four missed kicks.
His form now, off the tee and around the field, is at the other end of the scale, with the run from Leinster to Toulouse – where he was outstanding – to Connacht confirming that all is well. And it would need to be, given he is facing his childhood hero today in Jonny Wilkinson. The veteran is in the driving seat of a machine that threatens to do to Munster what they did to Leinster in the quarter-final.
"The big thing with that match was the missed tackles," Keatley says. "Leinster missed over 20, which is unheard of. If you're giving any team those stats, that gain-line possession, it's going to be very hard to beat them. One of the fascinating stats from the Toulouse match was that after 20 minutes we'd had 80 per cent possession and that's going to be key again. If we can hold onto the ball and attack with the intensity and physicality we brought the last day. We showed we are a good team and that we can take it to anyone. But if they get their hands on the ball and we're defending for 15-20 phases each time, it could be a long day at the office."
And what if Toulon offer Munster the front of the lineout to deny them any momentum off the tail? It allowed them give Leinster a shellacking in the middle of the field.
"Yeah, absolutely, the game nowadays has come down to getting over the gain line and winning the breakdown. We've seen what happened to Leinster that day. They won the ball at the front of the lineout and if you ask any backline, attacking off that is not great, so we do have one or two little plays that will get us over the gain line, so that's been noted.
"Doing our analysis on them, we know (Steffon) Armitage and (Mathieu) Bastareaud are big, blocky lads and once they get over the ball, they are very hard to move. The trick is not letting them get over the ball and even taking them out early, just before the ruck is formed. Our main focus is on those two lads this weekend but I'm sure if we do our jobs right around that breakdown and make sure that once the ball-carrier is tackled, he works on the ground and doesn't make it easy for them to get over the ball, it will be a lot easier for our cleaners to take those lads out."
For the past week it has been all about Toulon, and the power they will unleash in what will be a steaming arena in Marseille. Yet Munster, despite their transition phase, are the ones with the pedigree. How would Keatley describe what his team bring to the party?
"Just our belief, our underdog title, we just thrive on it," he says. "I think when we want something, we know how to go out and get it. We are ferocious in what we do. I just think of our attention to detail around these weeks. We put an extra focus on these weeks. Everyone knows their roles and responsibilities. Maybe it's lads doing extra homework, but once you know your role, your job, that's all you're thinking about. You're able to attack that ruck, attack that breakdown and clear your man out so the ball is there on a plate, whereas if you're thinking what your job is as you're coming around the corner, you mightn't do it as effectively. That's what we focus on in these weeks. Everyone knows their roles and responsibilities so that means you can go out and you can be physical and bring that high intensity to the game."
If Munster's march continues, they will be making room on the walls of Belvedere College for a new photograph: the man who took the long road to the right spot.
Sunday Indo Sport