Ian Keatley starting to reap reward after investment in hard slog
Munster outhalf has matured into confident pivot for a side keen to re-assert credentials
Ian Keatley winning his 100th Munster cap against the Dragons last week . Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Fittingly, Ian Keatley looks out on an empty Thomond Park from a corporate box with the number ‘10’ on its door. Four days away from today’s semi-final, he can scarcely conceal his excitement. Munster have trained at their Limerick citadel more than they’ve played there since the turn of the year. A semi-final, he says, rewards family and supporters who have stuck with them and the lack of big games there has only intensified the feeling that this game could be special.
“Sure look at it,” he says, casting a glance outside again. “It’s such a cool stadium. I even remember coming here when I was playing with Connacht, and I was in awe of it. People say it doesn’t have that same Thomond factor, but hopefully we’ll show that it does at the weekend.”
Thomond didn’t seem like such a fortress at the end of last season and start of this, when Munster lost four out of five, but for a big occasion such as the European Champions Cup pool win over Saracens, the place rocked. Victor Costello once described how he’d spent his career as an away player at Thomond save for one midweek game against the touring South Africans with the Irish As. Having made one of his trademark carries, he heard this appreciative roar from the supporters and thought: “Ah, so that’s what it’s like being a Munster player.”
“Sometimes we’re getting a bit of a jab that we’re not playing expansive rugby. Then again, we’re the top try scorers in the league,” he notes of their 68 tries, which is a dozen up on last season. “We’re maybe not playing as expansively, but we’re still scoring lots of tries and playing some good rugby, and have finished second in the league to get a home semi-final.”
Keatley has been central to that, starting 23 of their 28 games in his most productive season to date, which brought up his 100th cap for Munster last week against the Dragons.
“Funnily enough my first cap was against the Dragons in Musgrave,” he notes. “I’m actually moving house at the moment and I was clearing out my room, and found the programme from my first match, so that was a coincidence. And I’ve done it over four seasons, which I think shows I’m a pretty durable player. I never missed a game for Connacht either [77 games for them] and that was over three seasons.” That’s an average of more than 25 games per season.
Now 28, he says “my life has changed” since that debut at 24, “considering I was an understudy to Rog [Ronan O’Gara] and then two years later all of a sudden Rog is gone, and then I became the number one in the seat, with JJ [Hanrahan] trying to get that same position.”
Despite a period of transition, Keatley points out that last season they repeated their run to the Heineken Cup semi-finals, and he could add that they improved their league position from sixth to third. “I know we weren’t winning silverware, but we were still doing a lot of things right.
“Two years down the road I think it’s gotten to that stage where that’s not good enough any more. You can only use the excuse of a transition for so long. We need to show that we can go out and win something.”
It’s a valid point, for this is actually a very experienced Munster team. “Not getting too far ahead of ourselves, but we’ve got a big opportunity against the Ospreys at home in Thomond Park to get ourselves into a final and a 50-50 chance of winning a trophy. I know it’s a bit disappointing that we didn’t get out of our pool in the Champions Cup, but we got 15 points and Saracens went through on 17. There were three semi-finalists from the last two years in the one group and there was always going to be one loser.”
Keatley maintains that the one that got away was the home defeat to Clermont, though he accepts the nature of the defeat to Saracens was not good enough for Munster. That defeat hurt bad, and still lingers. “I know a lot of the fans were disappointed about that but, first of all, so were the players. We don’t need to be told it was a poor performance. We live it. We’re in here every day, and we know when we don’t perform. When you get momentum, any team can be hard to stop. We did it twice to Leinster this season. That doesn’t mean Leinster are a bad team.”
Nonetheless, he maintains that Munster have come a long way since then. “We’re able to vary the point of attack a lot more now. We want to win silverware this season, but I think next season will be a real test of how far we’ve come with a new coaching team.”
Revisiting that Saracens defeat and the fallout from only Munster’s second pool exit since 1997-98 reminds you of the onerous responsibility that comes with representing that crest. But Keatley wears it with increasing assurance, as well as pride.
He looks back on his first two seasons with Munster and admits he was watching and learning from Ronan O’Gara as much as playing. But now he thinks of himself as an experienced player, albeit one still striving to improve all the time.
The main change in his game is mental and a realisation that “I don’t have to light up the world every time I play”. This is all the truer given that an outhalf has so many touches on the ball. Mistakes will invariably follow, he reasons, so he has to put them aside immediately. “I know some days I am going to be very good, I know some days I’m going to be below par, but I’ve got my own self-belief. I’ve come a long way from where I’ve been. I’ve done so much hard work and I’ve put so much into this game, that I have to know that when it comes down to it I’m in a good place.”
He’s not, he admits, an outhalf inclined to go “barking and roaring” at his teammates, and finds he gets more from talking to them. “I think that’s where I’ve come from, from that Ian Keatley when I was 24, to now. It’s my understanding of the players and my self-assurance of what I can do and where I am as a player.”
This season he finally added to those first two caps on the North American tour of 2009 with a cameo against Georgia and a mentally strong performance against Italy in the Six Nations when recovering from what he admits was a nervous start to nail five from five kicks. Perhaps that has added to his self-belief. Keatley has always been an engaging and pleasant interviewee, but he’s also become more self-assured and confident. It’s hardly surprising, for the years from 24 to 28 are a time of maturation, and especially a rugby player.
Raw talent “I’ve said this before, there are players who have got unbelievable talent and just break onto the scene early, but there are places for other players who probably don’t have that raw talent but who have to come out and work their socks off, and I know that’s probably me. I had to work so hard and I look up to Felix Jones when I see how hard he works.”
Furthermore, Irish rugby tends not to produce the Dan Carter or Jonny Wilkinson type, and like Eric Elwood, David Humphreys, Ronan O’Gara and Johnny Sexton, Keatley’s should get better as he ages.
“That’s what Simon Mannix said to me, when he first came. He said: ‘You won’t be a good number 10 until you’re 28.’ So, I’m 28 now,” Keatley notes with a smile.
A product of Belvedere and the Leinster academy, Keatley admits: “Joe Schmidt even asked me would I go back to Leinster before I signed with Munster but I knew that the best thing for me and for my career was to come to Munster and I’ve no regrets about any of the moves I’ve made; going to Connacht and coming here, I’ve never had a regret. My dad said it to me ‘no matter what you decide to do, back it 100 per cent’, and that’s what I’ve done.”
It’s what he’s always done, and facing into a hard-earned semi-final at one of the grounds which has long since become home, he’s certainly not inclined to have any regrets now.