In this week’s Focus Friday, Jonathan Fitzpatrick takes a look at Munster out half Ian Keatley’s career up to this point and what he can offer Munster in the future.
After last weekend’s heroics, it’s difficult not to place Ian Keatley under the limelight in this week’s Focus Friday. The Munster out half pulled off a sensational drop goal last weekend to ensure a Munster victory away to Sale, in tradition with Munster’s previous last gasp Heineken Cup exploits.
A terrific performance against Leinster in Dublin before that, Keatley’s bright form has been rewarded by Joe Schmidt with a place in Ireland’s squad for the upcoming November internationals.
The Belvedere College man left Leinster for Connacht in 2008, where he forged a large reputation early in his career. He remains Connacht’s top points scorer, just shy of 700 points for the Galway based side. Keatley was part of a progressive Connacht side that were taken asunder all too early, as he left alongside Sean Cronin, and Fionn Carr – the core of Connacht’s brightest and most influential players at that time.
During his time at Connacht Keatley demonstrated his game management as the province’s first choice fly half, and he quickly became one of the brightest things about Connacht Rugby. With Paul Warwick moving to France, Munster were in need of a fly half to play back up to Ronan O’Gara. It was then Ian Keatley was brought to Thomond Park in 2011.
At this stage Keatley was vying with O’Gara for the Munster 10 spot, with Keatley behind the preferred O’Gara. As the months went on, and the seasons progressed, Keatley started to become a viable alternative to the Thomond Park legend.
O’Gara was winding down in his career as Keatley started to improve. They contrasted each other, with O’Gara a true controller of the game, and dictator of the ball. Keatley offered a better option in defence, and more in attack.
He was quicker and was more of a threat with ball in hand himself. He just didn’t have the kicking game that O’Gara helped define, and couldn’t influence the 30 men on the pitch like O’Gara could. But in 2013 when O’Gara stepped down, Keatley was ready to take the reigns at 10.
Keatley’s first season as Munster’s first choice 10 was a tumultuous one, as Munster’s style of play was conflicted under Rob Penney. A side that was battling transition was a side often bereft of ideas, as Penney’s vision for Munster differed from Munster’s vision for Munster.
Is it working, was it working, does it need more time – Penney’s abrupt departure from the Munster set up has brought in Anthony Foley and the reign of Axel has begun.
When O’Gara retired, Keatley got a new competitor for his spot in the 10 jersey – JJ Hanrahan. Much celebrated, much touted, Hanrahan is a young player with buckets of potential. Indeed there are already those calling for his inclusion ahead of Keatley, as the Kerry man is made of something special.
He hasn’t gotten his shot yet, and much more is to come from Hanrahan. For now, Keatley in his form, stands as the incumbent Munster 10, and he has worked extremely hard to get there.
For all Ian Keatley has shown us recently, are we now seeing the best of him? It’s definitely a possibility. Ian Keatley in hindsight probably moved to Munster at the wrong time. He was forging a reputation at Connacht, playing week in week out, really learning how to control the game.
He was developing and honing his craft at 10, before he was plucked out of Galway and placed on the bench in Limerick. He didn’t get the chance to kick off, he didn’t get the chance hit the ground running. He will have suffered from that, for an out half at that stage of his career, he needed to be playing more regular rugby.
Keatley was also a victim of the transition stage of Munster. Going to Munster would have been a phenomenal concept for Keatley, with Munster’s forward game world renowned. For an out half to have a solid pack in him with a guarantee of solid ball is a dream come true. It offers the perfect attacking platform.
However, during the last few seasons we’ve watched Munster, and their shortcomings have been documented. They didn’t stamp authority on the game à la the Munster of old, and that issue is twofold – an out half can only do so much without clean ball, while the forwards didn’t get the ‘O’Gara-esque’ momentum as they were used to.
O’Gara would kick the corner, drag his forwards up to the pitch and tell the team he was in charge. Keatley doesn’t do that.
In Ireland we can look at our two most successful fly halves of the modern game in Johnny Sexton and Ronan O’Gara. They are the heartbeat of any team they play on, they control the game, and if nothing else is going right they’ll shout give me the ball.
Keatley is a different mould of a 10. He’s a ball player, not a controller. Conor Murray is the heartbeat and the boss of this Munster side from 9, trying to fill the role of ‘the general’. Keatley is in excellent form, composed, distributing well, directing traffic. But does he lack that edge to take him to the next level?
Jonathan Fitzpatrick, Pundit Arena