A little raging helps driven Ian Keatley find the range
Munster outhalf hoping to make an impression after selection in Six Nations squad
Ian Keatley in action for Munster against Gloucester last weekend, a performance Rob Penney thinks was his best for the province. Photograph: Tony Marshall/Getty Images.
A week can change everything. The first thing Ian Keatley did on the Saturday morning after his dismal performance against Ulster in Ravenhill was to go Jake LaMotta on the local driving range. “I let the players down, let myself down and let a lot of family and friends down as well,” he said yesterday of his mindset that day. “I hit a few balls aggressively down the range and I got a bit of stress relief out of that.”
But those same people rallied around him. By the Sunday, Rob Penney had called to assure him that he was still going to be starting for last weekend’s crunch fixture against Gloucester. “No worries,” the plain talking coach told him. “We’re going to back you again this weekend.”
In Kingsholm, Keatley rewarded Penney with what the Munster coach described as the outhalf’s best performance in a red jersey. Then on Monday came the news that he had been included in Joe Schmidt’s Six Nations squad of 44. It’s far from the summit of his ambition but it is the right direction.
At the age of 26, Keatley is experiencing for the first time the bane of all elite athletes; niggling and recurrent injury. His on-going struggle with ostetis pubis, which causes inflammation and pain around the pelvis, may or may not have hampered his kicking game against Ulster: it certainly isn’t an excuse he is prepared to give himself. But he will concede it has interrupted his season, something he is not accustomed to.
He sailed through three seasons of soaking up attack after attack with Connacht without missing a game and enjoyed excellent health in his early seasons with Munster too.
“It means that I have been in for a week, out for two,” he acknowledges of this season. That stop-start pattern, combined with Penney’s expansive attitude towards spreading the minutes has given JJ Hanrahan, the shadow ten, a chance to shine.
By all accounts, Keatley’s attitude to Hanrahan’s emergence has been exemplary and yesterday, while acknowledging his pleasure at being included in the first draft of Schmidt’s plans, he had already spoken with his team-mate about the day when the pair of them would travel to Irish training together.
“He and I have been chatting about it and we can’t see a reason why myself and JJ can’t break into that squad, the two of us together. It is nice to have your name in there, whether I will be just there for the Saxons game . . . I’m just going up there to make an impression.”
While Johnny Sexton stands alone as the first choice Irish number ten, the race for the support place is increasingly fascinating, with Keatley hot on the heels of his Ulster and Leinster counterparts. Schmidt has advised him that it is a close call. “He just keeps reminding me that there’s not much in it between myself, Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan. He just stuck with them because they were on the summer tour and he had no reason to drop them. And that’s probably true and if I am going to break into the big squad, I need a few more big performances like I had against Gloucester.”
Sunday against Edinburgh brings an immediate opportunity to follow-up by conducting another of those bucking-the-odds performances at which Munster excel in Thomond Park. Their bid for a home quarter-final is contingent on results elsewhere but they will know what is required when they take the field.
Keatley is a Dubliner, raised through the Belvedere school system, and he spent a year with Leinster before signing for Connacht, where he established himself as a prolific points scorer and crowd favourite. Since moving south in 2011, he has learned to read the mood of the Munster dressing room and acknowledged there is a collective keenness to make a point that Munster men have much to contribute to the Irish cause.
“I think there is a bit of that bitter feeling that there aren’t more Munster players in the Ireland squad – particularly that last Ireland squad. I think we all rally together and we all knew that if we wanted to get that Ireland jersey we needed to do more and I think we showed that against Gloucester. That was our first real start to finish performance to date so far.”
Having nailed down his starting spot with Munster, it could be argued Keatley is perfectly placed to make a convincing push as stand-in number ten for Ireland too. With Jimmy Gopperth having edged out Ian Madigan in Leinster in recent weeks, the stars may be aligning at the right time for Keatley.
“I dunno if it’s my time or not. I am obviously always pushing, I want to play for Ireland. I have before but I want to do it again. I can’t control what Jimmy Gopperth or Ian Madigan are doing. I can only control what I am doing and I need to back up my performance now and pretty much leave Joe with no reason not to pick me.”