'That no one is calling for ROG return heaps credit on Keatley'
Penney full of praise as Euro heroics thrust Munster's new talisman closer to Irish recall
SO FAR the sign saying 'break glass in case of emergency' has remained untouched at Thomond Park, while the red phone with a direct line to Paris inside is gathering dust.
When Ronan O'Gara bowed out in the wake of last year's Heineken Cup semi-final defeat to Clermont and subsequently announced his coaching apprenticeship at Racing Metro, the question of whether Munster could survive his loss was widely raised.
The legendary fly-half left a void that some suspected would prove too large to fill and some pondered whether they'd come back cap in hand when things inevitably went wrong.
While he himself was probably never going to don the boots again, the fact that the call for O'Gara's return has not been made in any quarter is testament to the duo who stepped up and Ian Keatley in particular.
Almost a year on from O'Gara's final game, the Sutton native is now the province's priceless commodity. Peter O'Mahony's injury has been damaging to their cause, but with JJ Hanrahan sidelined there is little doubting that the loss of Keatley (below) would signal the end of their hopes in Marseilles next weekend.
Rob Penney has invested a lot of faith in the man who just turned 27 and has had to patiently work towards his chance.
"I think the easy answer is that no one's calling for ROG to come back," the Munster coach said when asked about Keatley's impact yesterday.
"I think that's the best compliment any player can have when they step into the shoes of a legend.
"Within six or eight months of that legend moving on, the guy that's taken his place is being regarded as a fine player in his own right and no one's wanting the legend back. So I think that sums it up for me.
"They have both – JJ as well – have done a really magnificent job under difficult circumstances. Ian's just growing all the time and is still not at his full potential yet, he's got a lot left in him. It's a credit to the guy."
It's not as if O'Gara has disappeared into thin air either.
His weekly appearances on the national airwaves, the release of his autobiography, the highly-charged television documentary and his high-profile appearances on RTE during the Six Nations have kept the Corkman front and centre in Irish rugby.
Given he has his eye on a return as a coach at some stage, the former star is cleverly managing his public profile even though he is based in France, but it could easily have had a negative influence on Keatley.
It is a credit to the former Leinster and Connacht pivot, who won two caps in 2009 and hopes to force his way back into the Ireland set-up once more by proving his worth for Munster, that he has not let the shadow affect him.
His season has not been flawless, but with his hand at the tiller the Reds have managed to get back to Europe's final four in style, while their league form is far better than it was a year ago.
Hanrahan's emergence as a real rival has helped and his match-winning turn in Perpignan was crucial, but Keatley has been first choice throughout the European campaign.
Still, he waits for an international opportunity and he knows the only way to force Joe Schmidt's hand is to perform on the big stages as O'Gara did so often.
Johnny Sexton's pre-eminence is unquestioned, but with Ian Madigan is still to convince Matt O'Connor at Leinster, who preferred Jimmy Gopperth for their biggest game of the season, and Ruan Pienaar's domineering role at Ulster rendering Paddy Jackson's exposure somewhat questionable, there is a case to be made for the man running games in Europe.
Although he was shaky on his last visit to France, there has been evidence of his big-game temperament in the wins over Leinster, Gloucester and Toulouse while his running threat has been in evidence.
And if he can do it again next weekend and Munster manage a historic win, then he will have given the Ireland management a real headache.
"He did it last season for us too if you think back when ROG wasn't available to us after the Scotland performance, Ian stepped in and did a great job," Penney said of his ability to handle the occasion.
"He has been beavering away, probably unheralded by many, except of course for us.
"I think he is well regarded by our group and is really stepping up as an internal leader which is what you need from your key drivers and so he should be.
"He is mature enough and has enough experience now to be able to take on that mantle.
"To that end he is invaluable to us and on the other side of that his durability is something which has been without question, his work ethic and his kicking, he puts a lot of effort into that.
"That extra work can cause issues around the groin, but he manages himself so well, like a true professional. I cannot speak highly enough of him."
Those groin problems are likely to be giving the New Zealander sleepless nights at the minute, given the slight tear to the same muscle suffered by Hanrahan.
Munster fans will have the rosary beads out for 80 minutes on Saturday as Keatley takes on his former club and his health is likely to become a fixation over the coming fortnight.
It will never be a case of 'Ronan who?', but the new man has stepped up as well as could have been expected and is now the man Munster can't afford to lose.
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