Ian Keatley’s road from despair to Ireland redemption
‘I remember saying to myself that this is probably the last time I will play for Ireland’
Ireland’s Ian Keatley kicks a penalty in their Guinness Series win over Fiji. Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
One day following a Six Nations Irish training session, Ian Keatley believed he had driven out the gates of Carton House for the last time. Bodies had consumed the space behind Johnny Sexton with Ian Madigan, Joey Carbery and Paddy Jackson in a dog fight for game time and the shirt.
Then last year as the Munster outhalf drove down the winding, mile long road he mentally closed the book on Ireland and what had become maddening frustration. People used to come up to Keatley after matches and ask if he had ever practiced kicking.
With that came a conflation of things. His attitude softened and the narrative of the Irish outhalf entirely changed. Madigan disappeared to Bordeaux and England, Jackson became unavailable for selection and last week Carbery fractured his wrist.
To layer it on, Keatley arrived from the bench against Fiji to put two pressure kicks over the posts as the inventive Carbery struggled with the set piece aspect of his game.
“I remember during the Six Nations here driving out of Carton House. I remember saying to myself that is probably the last time I will play for Ireland,” he says.
“But even after I said it, I remember saying to myself I am just going to enjoy myself from now on. I think a lot of players do. You put a lot of pressure on yourself. There were times when I wasn’t enjoying myself.
“I said I’m just going to enjoy myself playing rugby. Funnily enough now that I’m enjoying it and playing better another opportunity comes to play for Ireland. Jacques Nienaber said it can be fun but not funny.”
Beth, Keatley’s partner and Lisa his little girl born in September, bettered his life in a qualitative way. Anthony Foley’s death weighed in too and was another reminder to him that for the venal there are bigger questions.
Keatley didn’t have many of the answers but his relationship with rugby and the things outside of it made a tectonic shift. Things changed. What changed?
“Everything. Family now,” he says. “Everything. I’m seeing life a lot differently. Things have happened me with rugby and outside of rugby. It’s hard to say and it’s easier said than done.
“You can’t just say ‘go out there and enjoy yourself.’ I suppose that is just life experience. I think I’ve become a better person for it. I think you have to go through some things to come out the other end just to realise really.
“Mainly myself and the support of my family and my girlfriend,” he adds, processing what he is saying as he speaks and trying to find some discernible clarity for the room to understand the explanation. But it is simple.
“You just see things differently. It’s hard to put your finger on it. Literally, something happens one day and suddenly everything clicks.
“I have always been a hard worker on the field. Sometimes I was almost working too hard, driving myself nuts and training for hours trying to fix something. I almost had to let it go a little bit.
“Especially with my place-kicking, I went through a bad time with that two or three years ago. People were asking me ‘Do you not practice?’ I was telling them I practice all the time. I was practicing too much and driving myself crazy.
“It’s just (about) getting off the field and relaxing when I was away from the game...trying to separate rugby from my personal life. Then obviously what happened with Anthony Foley puts things in perspective. Having a family makes you have different views and perspective.”
Keatley was a 78 per cent kicker. The coaching staff at Munster and in the Irish team would prefer it to be 80 per cent or more. Like Ireland’s major winning golfer Pádraig Harrington he tried to tweak things with his technique to try and push up his percentage. But it didn’t work.
So he dialled it down and made only imperceptible adjustments. He calibrated more than tinkered and it has helped to play his way back in through the gates.
“Obviously, Johnny is number one and there is a lot of competition behind him,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity now although it is disappointing for Joey. The main thing is when you are a sub is that you come on and you fit in. That’s your first job.
“Then if you’re trying something, make a break and it comes off that’s great. That’s what I did at the weekend. Myself and Luke McGrath talked about it when we watched from the sideline that if we come on we will play the percentages. It’s never good for someone to get injured. But it offers an opportunity for me.”
Six Irish caps could become seven. Maybe. Maybe not. Either way Keatley will ride it out.