IAN Keatley is gearing up for the biggest game of his career. Having lived in Ronan O’Gara’s shadow in recent seasons, the Munster out-half will take centre stage in Saturday’s glamour Heineken Cup knock-out tie at a sold-out Thomond Park, 1.30pm.
It’s exactly the kind of challenge Keatley would want at this stage of his career.
“I’ve played in semi-finals for Connacht in the Amlin, played in Heineken Cup matches for Munster, but this is a step up the ladder for me, a home quarter-final against one of the best teams in the competition,” said Keatley.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge. Hopefully it will go well at the weekend.”
Keatley can feel the intensity crank up a couple of notches on Heineken Cup weeks, both inside the Munster camp and outside of it with the supporters.
Keatley, who turned 27 on Tuesday, said: “You can really feel it on those Heineken Cup weeks, there’s a lot more fans coming up to you when you’re walking down the street and wishing you luck as well, you probably wouldn’t get that in normal Rabo weeks.
“The Heineken Cup is determining the champions of Europe, you can’t say that about the Rabo and that’s why it is a special competition and why it is built up so much.
“That’s why it’s going to be more of a focus in the squad when it comes to Heineken Cup weeks.
“I’m happy enough with my own form. There’s always things to work on, my game is always developing and growing so I think I’m in happy place with game and hopefully I’ll continue on.
“I thought I did well enough against Leinster. I’ve quite a few things to work on but if I can step it up another level now on the weekend I’ll be happy.”
Keatley is expecting Toulouse to send their big ball carriers down his channel on Saturday to test his defensive mettle, but he is used to that tactic at this stage of his career.
Keatley said: “Leinster did it at the weekend as well. That’s why I’m just saying it comes down to individual tackles at the end of the day.
“But if I’ve got my connection with my seven and my twelve, it makes it a lot harder for them to break us down.
“That’s why I’m talking about our own individual jobs and responsibilities that if I do get a half-tackle in then there’s someone there to finish him off.
“We don’t defend as individuals, we defend in threes and fours, we have that pack mentality to take them on.
“So hopefully if they do send their monsters down we’ll be able to smother their attack, slow down their ball and make it a lot more difficult for them.”
Toulouse could well opt to deploy their All-Black Luke McAlister at out-half on Saturday. Keatley has long been an admirer of the former Sale Sharks star.
Keatley said: “I’ve obviously been watching Luke (McAliser) my whole career. He’s one of the top out-halves in the world and he’s a bulky enough 10.
“So I’m just looking forward to the challenge of playing him. I like testing myself against other 10’s in the world, seeing how far my career is going compared to theirs.”
Keatley is confident Munster can produce a complete 80-minute performance against the four-time Heineken Cup winners this weekend.
Keatley added: “Yeah I think we have shown it (that a big performances is coming )in a lot of matches, what we are capable of doing, but we haven’t got that 80 minute performance yet which is very hard to do.
“But it is hard when you’re not together week in, week out and obviously with the Six Nations being on that length, Saturday was the first time that team has played together since the last match of the group stages in the Heineken Cup.
“So it is hard to flick a switch but we are professionals, this is our job, we should be able to do it and we didn’t get it enough there on the weekend. This is the second time that we’re playing together, so hopefully we’ll build on more on that against Toulouse at the weekend.
“Given the fact that we didn’t have that much ball and didn’t penetrate that much, we were still within touching distance of beating Leinster. I do think that Leinster probably had the edge on us but if we had more ball, held onto it more and built more pressure, I think we would have got the scores that would have more reflected what we were trying to do.”