Ian Keatley high on confidence as his Munster revival continues
Outhalf is keeping everything in perspective and enjoying his rugby and life to the full
Munster’s Ian Keatley celebrates after their victory over Racing 92 in the Champions Cup. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Ian Keatley’s revival has been one of the stories of the season. Seemingly set to move on at the end of last season, after effectively becoming Munster’s second choice outhalf, he not only re-signed but has regained the Munster number 10 jersey and has every chance of being Ireland’s back-up outhalf in the Six Nations.
The return to European Champions Cup action against Racing on Sunday finds him in a good place on and off the pitch – the two not being unrelated. Now 30, and with almost 250 competitive games under his belt for Connacht, Munster and Ireland (248 to be precise) experience has taught him not to get so wrapped up in rugby, even in weeks like this.
Asked to rate his current level of confidence on a scale of one to 10, Keatley’s initial response is to joke: “Is 10 being arrogant?” For such an innately likeable and humble lad, he would perish the thought.
It’s a weird thing as well, if you almost think too much about rugby you can almost get your mind boggled a bit, so you need to find that balance
“I would say I am around eight or nine, very happy, but I know I can keep improving and keep getting better. There are still things I need to work on, a lot of things I need to work on,” he adds, smiling, “so I am going to keep doing that.
“It’s a weird thing as well, if you almost think too much about rugby you can almost get your mind boggled a bit, so you need to find that balance.”
Having a baby daughter will do that, his wife Lisa Downey having welcomed Beth into the world five months ago. “She certainly does, early in the morning, late at night and all through the night, but it is great,” he says with a hint of mock weariness to the smile.
“It is perspective. One of the lads [in the squad] had a loss there during the week in his family and you think of things like that,” he said, in reference to the passing of Tommy O’Donnell’s brother Gearoid.
“I remember Rassie [Erasmus] said it to me when he first came in, when he was talking about my confidence and stuff, he was like, ‘Keats you have no idea when you have a family and you put things into perspective, like rugby won’t matter to you at all’. It does still matter, don’t get me wrong, but I could see where he was coming from when he made those comments.”
His more relaxed and confident mindset has enabled Keatley to recover from missed kicks or errors, making him a more reliable goal-kicker and playmaker. He’s also enjoying the heightened decision-making on the pitch which he and his teammates have been entrusted with, witness the grubber for Andrew Conway’s try last Saturday against Connacht which was straight out of the Ronan O’Gara playbook.
“We are just focusing on making sure we can get try and get the ball into space and sometimes the space is carrying yourself, sometimes the space is passing or sometimes the space might be putting it through or even we might have to go aerially sometimes – contestables – so we are trying to get a nice balance to our game.
“If we try something magical and it is not the right thing to do, then we start questioning our decision-making there, but if it is the right thing to do and it doesn’t come off, we back those decisions,” says Keatley, with communication from players outside a key.
It’s like a car racing game you know and people change the view to where they can just see the front of the car and the corner coming up
Having this responsibility is all the more exciting in games such as next Sunday’s in the U Arena, where he expects the 4G surface will make the ball “bounce differently” and the enclosed roof will make it akin to “a furnace”.
“That is what Johann [van Graan] and Rassie have brought in, that players take a lot more leadership on the pitch and make decisions on the pitch. When you look from up above you can see the space but it’s completely different when you’re actually in the game.
“It’s like a car racing game you know and people change the view to where they can just see the front of the car and the corner coming up. No one ever picks the view when you are in the car because it’s a lot harder and us, as players, we see that. So that’s why Johann has given us a lot more responsibility on the pitch to make those calls because we can feel what’s happening on the pitch and it might look differently from a different view.”
As in the first meeting last October, Dan Carter is expected to overcome a recent injury to take his place opposite Keatley. Carter missed out on the Thomond Park encounter last January, so as soon as the draw pitted the two sides against each other again, Carter resolved that come hell or high water he would experience the Limerick citadel for the first time in his illustrious career.
“You want to play in the best stadiums, and you want to play against the best players in the world,” says Keatley. “You also want to beat them so that’s the main focus for us. Obviously as I said you don’t want to focus too much on them but it is exciting when you see those names on the team sheet.
“He’s definitely up there,” adds Keatley, as to whether Carter has been the best outhalf of them all. “I think Jonny Wilkinson in his prime was unbelievable as well and obviously ROG was a different type of player.”
At this point, a giggling Simon Zebo interrupts his answer by rapping on the door, prompting Keatley to conclude: “But it would good as well to beat Racing and send Zebo over there with two losses.”