Ireland coach Ian Keatley focuses on the next job - to make history with the U20s

The young Ireland team’s backs’ coach is potentially two matches away from achieving a unique feat

It’s much more than a rugby show-and-tell teaching method, even though it unfolds in front of a crowd made up predominantly of schoolchildren at Thursday morning’s training session between Andy Farrell’s senior squad and Richie Murphy’s under-20s.

The novelty is for those in the stands as the practice of the squads training together is not a new venture, rather it dates back several years. There’s little doubt that the age-grade squad are the principal beneficiaries. It’s a seasoning process without the spice.

Farrell’s side head to Twickenham next Saturday, the under-20s for the Rec in Bath the previous night, both unbeaten and looking to take the penultimate step towards respective Grand Slams, a second in succession for the seniors, while the younger siblings are chasing three in a row at that level.

Ireland under-20s backs’ coach Ian Keatley fully appreciated the value of the session. England are big, physical, athletic, with a heavyweight scrum and an aggressive line-speed in defence, so getting a physical buffeting during the blowout session had an obvious value.


He explained: “They are athletes, get off the line quickly, so it was great that we trained with the seniors to feel that pressure.” In his first season with the 20s since taking over from Mark Sexton, Keatley stands on the threshold of a unique milestone. If they win their final two games, he would be the first person to win an under-20s Grand Slam as a player and a coach.

He was outhalf on Eric Elwood’s 2007 Grand Slam champions, a squad that contained future Irish internationals Felix Jones, Darren Cave, Keith Earls, Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Hagan, and Tommy O’Donnell. Luke Fitzgerald was eligible but an injury and the fact that he had broken into the Leinster team precluded his participation.

It was the first Ireland under-20 team, as World Rugby had decided to reduce the previous age grade by a year, but in that particular Six Nations France and Italy both fielded under-21 teams, rendering the Slam an arguably greater achievement and one that can never be replicated.

Jones scored two tries, but it was Keatley’s drop goal that nudged Ireland past Wales at the Liberty stadium 17-15. The outhalf kicked 11 points as Elwood’s side beat France 19-16 and eight in the 13-6 win over England, both at Dubarry Park in Athlone. They hammered Scotland 31-8 in Falkirk to set up a Grand Slam tilt in Benevento, two hours outside Rome.

It didn’t look promising when they trailed 20-7 in the first half. Keatley recalled: “I remember running in [at half-time] and Eric [Elwood] looking at me when I [volunteered], ‘don’t worry about it, we will get them in the second half’. We blew them out of the park because we were fitter.” Ireland won 36-25.

“I don’t think we knew that we were an exceptional bunch until we saw how many professional players came out of it. We had a lot of fun, a really tight-knit group.”

The current players know of his success at under-20 level and may also be aware of his subsequent professional career with Connacht, Munster, London Irish, Benetton and Glasgow Warriors. He never lost a senior Test match with Ireland, seven wins from as many caps.

Keatley is careful not to start any conservation with the players by saying ‘well, back in my day’, but his experience as a player and now a coach is invaluable. The first thing that struck him when he joined the coaching team was the environment created by Murphy, the head coach.

He explained: “Everyone compliments Richie on the environment he creates and that’s what he is doing for this group. That is what he wanted me to add to. You hear from Andy Farrell about the [importance of] environment, how they enjoy it; it’s family, they are not just work colleagues, they are mates.

“That’s what I felt we had at under-20s back then, it’s what we have here and it’s what the senior national team have too. [The under-20s] is a stepping stone. Don’t think that you have to inspire anyone else, this is your opportunity, take it. We have created a nice culture, environment to do that, to learn, to get better but we have to enjoy the process on the way.”

Keatley acts as a water carrier during matches, his primary focus to ensure that players are attuned to the “next-job mentality. “I come in whenever we score a try [and ask the group] ‘what’s the next job?’ You’re trying to get them to reset mentally. To be honest, the players are now taking over that process themselves. That is growth, where we want to get to.

“You have to remember that a lot of these guys are 19, some are under-19s playing for us, so 18 and straight out of school. You have to find that balance between them taking responsibility and teaching them how to do it.”

Part of the process is to guard against overloading players with detail. Keatley said: “That’s one thing that Richie is very good at, that less is more. Clarity equals execution. To be able to execute it under pressure is his winning mentality.”

Keatley did a bit of coaching when he was playing, got his qualifications, loved the game, and knew that he wanted to stay involved. Coaching was a logical step. He pointed out that he’s played under some brilliant exponents, such as Joe Schmidt, Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber, Declan Kidney and Kieran Crowley.

“You will always pick up little nuggets of information and bring that into coaching. You work with coaches too where you [say] ‘I didn’t like the way that that happened’.”

It is now his time to teach, to motivate, to empower. Keatley understands what lies ahead in the next fortnight from a player’s perspective and will hopefully get to appreciate it and double down on under-20s’ Grand Slam success as a coach.