Munster edge it as Ian Keatley fills Ronan O’Gara’s boots

Former outhalf watched from hotel room as successor notched winning drop goal

Ian Keatley kicks Munster’s match-winning drop goal against Sale in the first round of the European Champions Cup on Saturday at the AJ Bell stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Sitting in the team hotel ahead of their European Rugby Champions Cup clash with the Northampton Saints, Ronan O'Gara commandeered an iPad belonging to one of Racing Metro 92's strength and conditioning coaches – the hotel didn't have the BeIN SPORTS television feed – so he could follow Munster's progress against the Sale Sharks at the AJ Bell stadium, one that would ultimately lead to a 27-26 victory for the Irish province.

The scoreline alludes to the fraught endgame that duly materialised but all the nuances and collusion of circumstances that offered a nod to the history books, were initially lost in a maelstrom of emotion. Ian Keatley’s beautifully struck, injury-time drop goal pilfered an away victory and four points.

O'Gara pioneered that specific feat of drop-goal escapology not once but twice in 2011, first after the match clock had turned ruby red to defy the Northampton Saints (41 phases) and again the following weekend against Castres Olympique at the Stade Ernest Wallon in Toulouse.

Sitting in a hotel room in Paris on Saturday, the former Munster outhalf looked on approvingly.


The similarities extend way beyond the fact that two players, sporting the red number 10 jersey, sought injury-time salvation for the province with right-footed drop goals.

Examining O'Gara's effort against Northampton and Keatley's in Manchester on Saturday reveals that they both spurned earlier opportunities to take the shot, and also profited from decent line breaks by wingers to manipulate field position; Doug Howlett in O'Gara's case and Simon Zebo for Keatley.

So did O’Gara immediately identify the moment when Keatley would take the pop? “I watched Munster go through the phases and when (Simon) Zebo made that little break, I thought, ‘this is on now, do it’.

“When you’re not at the venue you don’t get a full appreciation of the conditions. I knew there was a strong wind and it appeared to be blowing straight down the pitch. People think that a shot from straight in front of the posts is easier but it’s not the case, from a technical perspective.

“I watched Keats’ body language. He knew instantly that he had nailed it. He set it out a tiny bit to the right and basically black-dotted it. Instinct takes over in those situations. You can hit an awful lot of balls in practice but you can’t replicate the pressure of a moment like that.

Flew off the line

“He correctly turned down the first chance as Sale flew off the line, and that takes courage. There’s an element of stupidity in taking on a kick where the chance of success is tiny and everything rides on the outcome.

“He showed experience, composure and trust in his team-mates that they could work another opportunity. It was a wonderful moment for him personally and the team. I’m delighted for him and it’s something he’ll take forward to other matches.”

Someone who enjoyed a more intimate view of Keatley's unerring right boot was Andrew Conway, one of Munster's three try scorers.

When the Munster outhalf turned down the first chance of a drop goal, it was to his house-mate that he turned to retain possession.

While Conway marvelled at his team-mate’s drop goal, he identified Keatley’s blemish-free place-kicking – five from five attempts – as being arguably more impressive. “Even if you look back at the [touchline]conversion following Conor’s try, that came in off the post.

Coming hard

“That’s massive, that’s as good as the drop goal. The conditions [wind wise] in the corners were very difficult.”

Conway said of Keatley’s first opportunity at a drop goal: “He got a call when he was in the pocket that Sale were coming hard at him. The lads who have been through those big European days, there is no panic at all.

“He could have snatched at it and that would have been it. Instead, he stayed calm. I think all 15 of us were calm. Keats coming in at the end [with the drop goal] was exceptional; it was the best feeling I have ever had on a rugby pitch.”

Once the afterglow of the victory recedes, the Munster team and management face a substantial workload ahead of Friday night’s clash with Saracens at Thomond Park.

There were aspects of the first-half performance against Sale that were slovenly, most notably in defence.

Munster missed 10 tackles during that period, the majority in the middle of the pitch; the inside three backs were not the only guilty parties.

A failure to appreciate Sale's vulnerability to direct carrying around the fringes, which was the hallmark of David Kilcoyne's early try, too many basic handling errors, and a couple of scrum penalties gave the home side an early foothold. Munster were running into trouble through Danny Cipriani's boot and the coruscating running of centres Sam Tuitupou and Johnny Leota.

Direct style

Sale butchered two other gilt-edged try scoring chances to go with the brace that they did take through Magnus Lund and Leota, and if they had been less profligate, there would have been no scope for Munster’s late revival.

The Irish province recalibrated their patterns after the interval and a more direct style led to tries from Conway and Conor Murray.

Victory offers a little early breathing space in a claustrophobic pool but it won’t soften the critical analysis of several aspects of the performance.

Munster are a better team than Sale but neither of the other teams in the pool is going to afford them the latitude to wriggle free from a straightjacket of mediocrity.

Scoring sequence. 6 mins: Cipriani penalty, 3-0; 9: Kilcoyne try, Keatley conversion, 3-7; 15: Cipriani penalty, 6-7; 18: Cipriani penalty, 9-7; 23: Lund try, Cipriani conversion, 16-7; 28: Leota try, Cipriani conversion, 23-7. Half-time: 23-7. 55: Conway try, Keatley conversion 23-14; 64: Murray try, Keatley conversion, 23-21; 68: Cipriani penalty, 26-21; 70: Keatley penalty, 26-24; 80: Keatley drop goal 26-27. SALE SHARKS: M Haley; T Brady, J Leota, S Tuitupou, T Arscott; D Cipriani, C Cusiter; E Lewis Roberts, M Jones, V Cobilas; J Mills, M Paterson; M Lund, D Seymour (capt), M Easter. Replacements: R Harrison for Cobilas; M Jennings for Tuitupou (both 56 mins); A Ostrikov for Mills (61 mins); J Beaumont for Seymour (72 mins); A de Marchi for Effion Roberts (75 mins). MUNSTER: F Jones; A Conway, A Smith, D Hurley, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, D Casey, S Archer; D Foley, P O'Connell; P O'Mahony (capt), T O'Donnell, CJ Stander. Replacements: J Cronin for Kilcoyne; BJ Botha for Archer (both 44 mins); JJ Hanrahan for Hurley (56 mins). Yellow card: T O'Donnell (33 mins). Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France) replaced by Laurent Cardona (France) 15 mins. Attendance: 9,879

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer