Munster out-half Ian Keatley on the charge in their Champions Cup bonus point win over Leicester Tigers at Thomond Park
FOR Munster out-half Ian Keatley, last Saturday night brought a degree of closure, a chance to draw a line under what was the most difficult night of his rugby playing career.
With five minutes remaining in Munster's bonus point Champions Cup win over Leicester Tigers at Thomond Park, Keatley was called ashore. A job well done for part one of the two-part Champions Cup fixtures.
The Munster fans in the East Stand gave Keatley a warm ovation as he joined the rest of the replacements. Two years almost to the day, against the exact same opposition and at the same stage of the European Cup, Keatley had been on the receiving end of boos and jeers from a small number of Munster fans. Munster's 16th man hadn’t engaged in this type of behaviour before.
Keatley bore the brunt of Munster’s on-pitch struggle and the crowd's frustration.
But sport and supporters can be fickle as last Saturday night clearly demonstrated, the booing of 2015 replaced by warm, generous, applause.
Ian Keatley said: "It is funny how it was two years pretty much to the day. The same opposition, the same fixture. It was great on Saturday. The whole thing is now put to bed. That's what I got from it.
"For me, personally, I think it is put to bed because I can go, like, 'listen, that is gone now, I was over that blip'. People still talk about that night. Listen, it was just one night. I know I didn't perform.
"It was only a very small minority of the crowd that were like that. It was a small percentage. 99.9% of the crowd week in and week out are so supportive. It was just that night, just frustration from the crowd.
"I was holding back tears that night, I probably did have tears that night, I know I did.
“For now, same fixture, two years later, same opposition, so for me it is just put to bed.
"I think we can move forward and move on with it. That is what I am taking from it. I was actually quite nervous before the game on Saturday night thinking, ‘imagine that happens again’ and I am sure I will have a bad game in the future.
“No player ever tries to have a bad game, we prepare hard and we work hard to perform, so no one needs to tell a player they have played badly, they know themselves."
Last Saturday night when the 30-year-old got home from Thomond Park, he watched the game back, as he likes to do. Watching games a second time can often give him a new perspective, one you don't always get when engaged in the white heat of battle. It can also help ensure the out-half gets a better night's sleep.
"I actually like to watch the game again when I get home because sometimes when you play a game - sometimes when you think you have a bad game and you watch it again you could see, 'oh, I didn't do that bad'- or if you have a good game and watch it again, it can be like, 'oh it wasn't as good as I thought.'
"So I always like to watch it again, it kinda clears my mind. Otherwise, I know if I went to bed I would be thinking about the game in my head, wondering what about that or that?
“Watching the game again eases my mind a bit, good and bad.
"Saturday was good. The scoreline doesn't reflect the game, though, at all. We did play well, but they were good as well, they were dangerous and when they did create a few chances we scrambled well and kept them out.
"When they had their purple patch we defended well. On the other side when we had our purple patch we scored.”
While much speculation has centred around the futures of Munster back-rowers Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander as both are out of contract at the end of the season, Keatley, in the first season of a current two-year deal, also spares a thought for the players who are literally playing for a contract and their futures in the game.
"I know there is a lot of contract talk at the moment with the lads who are in very good positions, but there is also the flip side of it where there are lads who are playing for contracts and there is a lot of pressure to perform because you know if you don't perform you don't get contracts or you might get a decrease in what you are getting paid.
"There is a lot of pressure in that. People have families, people have mortgages, they still have the same commitments as any other person, we still have to pay the bills and unfortunately even if you train hard and you don't perform at the weekend that is what you are judged on in rugby.
"I did have offers last year from other clubs (before I signed new deal), but I knew with my partner expecting that I really wanted to stay here with our first child on the way.
“It would be easier to be here, she is from Limerick and obviously with the support network from both families we said if we had to we would go, but if we could stay we would.
"Thankfully, I got a two-year deal and it does take the pressure off family wise and financially.”
Keatley made 10 starts for Munster last season, with just three starts between January and May as Tyler Bleyendaal monopolised the number 10 jersey with 25 starts through the season.
However, the resilient Keatley, firmly established as Munster's starting out-half once again, said he was determined to make the most of every minute of game time which came his way last term.
"Going back to two years ago it was a tough time for me, but last season I really took it on. After the first few games I knew I wasn't going to get as much gametime as I had gotten previously.
"So I said, 'use this experience, keep getting better week in and week out, every time you get a chance to play, put your best foot forward and that is all you can do.’
"I couldn't tell the coaches who to pick or anything like that. I just wanted to make sure that any time I got on the pitch, I was ready to perform, even if it was two minutes at the end of a game, if it was 20 minutes or if I started.
“People talk about my form this year, but last year whenever I did get a chance and whenever I did start - I think I got two or three Man of the Matches and I only started five games, I knew I was back in form last year and in fairness to Tyler he was playing unbelievably well, I was delighted for him.
“He was playing well and the team was playing well, that makes the 10s job easier.
"I knew coming into this season I built back into it from my form last season even if I didn't get that much gametime. I took great confidence from last season and brought that in this season.
"I am enjoying it, enjoying the coaches, enjoying the lads, there is a great energy here and a good vibe about the place.
“We all know where we want to go. That’s the main thing that is happening at the moment.”
Having arrived in Limerick from Connacht at the start of the 2011-2012 season, Keatley is used to being a recognisable face in the city where rugby talk dominates.
“Sometimes you want your privacy with the family, but then again, if people weren't coming up to you saying ‘hello’ or ‘well done’, you would be wondering why they weren't doing so. It is part and parcel of living here.
“I have never had someone come up to me and say a bad word, except for one or two guys when they were drunk.
“Publicly to my face, I have never had a bad word said to me which is great.
“That is the great thing about Limerick. We know rugby is to the forefront of the city. Limerick FC have been doing well also. Sport in general around the community is going well.”
His involvement in coaching at Young Munster has helped him see the demands of life at a top level Ulster Bank League club. Keatley, who has now racked up 162 appearances for Munster in all, is enjoying the experience of the grassroots level.
“I would love to go down the coaching route. Helping out with Young Munster is great way to meet the lads. They are not professionals, but they want to have that success just as much through the AIL.
“You have to remember sometimes that they are not professionals. You have that strange split in club rugby where you have lads who want to do really well and want to succed, lads who are in the Munster Academy who see Young Munster as a way of helping them move up the grade, then you have the seasoned pro who loves playing rugby and then other lads who love the social side of it. Some of them are there because they love to train, have craic and be part of a team.
“That was the hardest thing for me to work out when I went there first, the different dynamics within the team. That is part of coaching, it's how you get your message across to individuals who are on different wavelengths.
“It is enjoyable. They are a great bunch of lads, very funny. It helps bring me back down to earth as well.”
This weekend Keatley's focus is firmly on Sunday's mammoth Champions Cup Round 4 clash with Leicester Tigers at Welford Road.
“We have looked a little bit back on last year. We beat Leicester 38-0 at home and then we end up losing with the last kick over there. That is the beauty of the back-to-backs, even if you lose one week, you get the chance to rectify it.
“I think the pressure is on them to win, but we put pressure on ourselves, we know that if we can go over there and get a result, it puts us in a very good position leading up to Christmas and if we lose we know the pressure is back on us because we have to go to Racing and we have Castres after that. We know the importance of Sunday.”