There is always a sense of guilt, sorrow and reluctance when criticizing vulnerable Ian Keatley – this accurately reflects why he is not a top outhalf.
IAN Keatley joined Munster in the 2011 season as the record-breaking career of Ronan O’Gara began to come to a close. ‘ROG’ was a fan favourite and an icon of rugby all around the globe. Tying to fill his shoes was never going to be easy. The Dublin boy always had a huge task ahead of him to try and do the famous ten shirt proud.
At his previous destination of Connacht, ‘Keats’ had already proved to be one of Ireland’s best young talents as he became the province’s record points scorer with 688 after just 77 appearances. If he could manage to continue his rise he would perhaps reach the heights of O’Gara, or at least close to them, but in his own style.
Keatley was recognized as the man to start when the glory days of O’Gara passed. Although he would be the eventual replacement, the two men could not be any more different in approach. O’Gara was arguably the best kicker the game had ever seen and his flat passes were heavenly for any twelve outside him, a maestro, a genius. On the downside, the Corkman was often mangled for his defensive capabilities. Keatley meanwhile, has more pace than O’Gara ever had and is a confident defender. Unfortunately, his kicking is very ‘hot and cold’ and his delivery is average in comparison.
From the first day at the job, Munster could see that Keatley had flair and potential. He kicked six from six against the Cardiff Blues on 23 September 2011 to win the match 18-13 for Munster and as a result, the individual recognition of the Man-of-the-Match award. Keatley started the Heineken Cup pool decider against Racing Metro in 2013 as Ronan O’Gara missed out through suspension. The fact that he managed to get a certain section of fans wanting him to start ahead of O’Gara for the quarter final against the Harlequins was a huge testament to his performance.
Other highlights of his time in red include his dropgoal at the AJ Bell Stadium, his interception and all-round showing against Leinster in 2014 and his kicking performance V Toulon in Marseilles. In such instances, it was clear that Keatley had a capacity for excellence and at times, the crucial nerve that a Munster flyhalf requires. However, the problem has always been trying to display that standard of performance on a regular basis.
Mentally weak, lacks leadership, unable to control a game, too shy
All of the above have been used to describe Ian Keatley after a bad day at the office. Keatley has played behind quite an impressive Munster pack for as long as he has been with the province. Never once has he taken a game by the scruff of the neck and kicked for the corners with great success. The reason for this is due to his timid personality. Unlike Johnny Sexton, Ronan O’Gara and all the great number tens, he has no cockiness, steely personality or bite, and hence, cannot lead his team through tough times.
Ireland international scrumhalf Conor Murray has therefore been the primary kicker and leader for Munster’s backline since Ronan O’Gara’s retirement. Although the Garryowen clubman is arguably the best in the world for box-kicks from the base of the ruck, it is difficult for a nine to be as influential as their half back partners. With Keatley backing down from the duties, Munster lose an element of much importance within their kicking game. The punt kick is non-existent in the majority of Munster’s matches. When Murray isn’t available, Keatley doesn’t have a choice but to expose his weaknesses. And when it goes wrong, as we see below, the whole show goes wrong
What does the future hold?
Reflecting on a season that ended in such disappointment for the Munster outhalf, it can still be seen as the most productive of his career. He scored a total of 247 points and won his 100th Munster cap. Internationally, Keatley also started his first ever Six Nations game against Italy, nailing 5/5 kicks in the process. He’s no O’Gara, few are, but his stats would suggest that perhaps the standard set by the Red Army leaves them more disappointed than most would be. The only way is up from here.
With the end of the 2014/2015 season fresh in our minds, it is easy to talk about Keatley’s negatives. However, it would be ignorant to discard what he showed against Toulon for example the previous year, which lead to a nomination for Munster Player of the Season. He will be thirty years of age by the time his two-year contract extension expires but could yet sort out his mentality to become consistent and therefore an international standard ten. Whether his Munster career will be deemed as a success or a flop will be decided on the future rather than the past.
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– Admin Ronan