Ian Keatley feeling the intensity only European rugby brings
‘It is kinda hard to explain until you have really experienced it,’ Munster man says
Munster’s Ian Keatley talks to the media ahead of their Champions Cup clash with Toulon. Photo: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Whether in its previous incarnation as the Heineken Cup or in its current guise, European Champions Cup weeks are different down Munster way. Be it within the squad’s training base in the University of Limerick, on the streets or come match day at Thomond Park, everything is more intense.
As someone who has played 58 games in both European competitions, Ian Keatley has built up a fair body of work. Of those, 38 have been in the Champions Cup with Munster, 20 have been at Thomond Park.
Keatley has an impressive win-loss record of 18-2 at Munster’s Limerick fortress, and save for five appearances off the bench, the others have been with the fabled ‘10’ jersey on his back.
“You can feel it. You are not thinking about it, but you can feel it. It is kinda hard to explain until you have really experienced it. The whole build up you can feel the buzz, even the build up during the week before, you’ve got people coming out of nowhere asking for tickets.
“You’re walking down the street and people are wishing you good luck for the weekend. It is such a good buzz around and then the day of the match, even when you are getting the bus on the way to the ground you can feel the crowd, the buzz, the anticipation.
“It is weird. When the game is about to kick-off you can feel the buzz, but once the ball is kicked off you are just zoning in on what you have to do on the pitch.”
Asked to quantify what it is like to play in a European Cup game at Thomond Park, Keatley admits: “That is a difficult question. Obviously, you have heard of Thomond Park, but you have been to big matches growing up when you are a kid. It is a slightly different atmosphere to an international match, I can’t really explain why.
“It is probably because when you are at an international match you have people from each of the provinces supporting but when it is Munster they are focusing just on Munster.”
Asked if they were more intense, Keatley replies: “Well, at international matches the atmosphere is still pretty intense, but yeah, it is. It is intense and the fans are a bit more focused because it is your community, your friends and family from that area, so it is maybe, if that’s the right word, a more focused, intense atmosphere.”
For all Munster’s injury woes, they will welcome back three key members of Ireland’s Grand Slam winning team in Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Conor Murray, and the presence of the best all-round scrumhalf in the world is particularly beneficial for Keatley. It also opens up other possibilities for their attack.
“Conor has a phenomenal kicking game. We try to use that, maybe not to the max, but it is a wonderful weapon to have. That also opens up space for someone else. If they are worried about Conor’s kicking game, space might be on to run so we are trying to get that balance right this week. Hopefully we can exploit the space wherever it arises.”
There is a ready recognition that Munster will not outmuscle Toulon over 80 minutes, and that they will have to augment their physicality with some subtlety.
“It’s simple science,” says Keatley. “If you’re 100kg against 130kg you’re more than likely going to lose out there. We have little ways of being nice and direct and attacking them. But we also might have subtle little changes in the point of attack.
“That will be our focus this week. We’re not going to be stupid and think we’re going to outmuscle them. That would the wrong way to go about it. We are still going to be physical, we’ll still be direct and we’ll change the point of attack and go for the spaces.”
Yet given Munster’s injury toll and the quality Toulon will bring, a win on Saturday would probably eclipse anything they’ve achieved in recent years.
“I think for this current squad, yeah. Since I have been here, I have had five different head coaches, and with the amount of players that have come in and come out over the past couple of years, I think it would be such a huge achievement for this particular squad at the moment. If we perform against Toulon and come out with a win, you are only two games away from winning silverware, so it is massive.
“We were talking about it the other day and I am the third oldest in the group, Billy (Holland) is the oldest and Duncan Williams, the second oldest. It is quite a young squad and the only way they are going to get experience is to play in these quarter-finals and hopefully semi-finals. It is going to be massive for the squad and we are looking forward to the challenge.”