INTERVIEW WITH CONNACHT OUTHALF IAN KEATLEY: John O'Sullivan meets the talented outhalf who took his chance to get into the professional ranks
IAN KEATLEY'S decision to leave Leinster for Connacht during the summer articulates his ambition. The 21-year-old was surrounded by friends in the Leinster Academy, in the case of Paul O'Donohue, Cian Healy and Eoin O'Malley, a camaraderie that dated back to school days at Belvedere College.
The easier option would have been to stay put, knuckle down and try to put behind him what had largely been a disappointing season, playing much of his rugby at club level with Clontarf. Instead he chose to accept a one-year contract from Connacht coach Michael Bradley, recognising the chance to pursue his goal of being a professional rugby player.
Keatley's ruthlessly honest appraisal of his situation in acknowledging the logjam of talent ahead of him in the Leinster set-up, primarily in the form of Felipe Contepomi and Jonathan Sexton, made a decision, taken in consultation with his parents and coaches, relatively straightforward. He spoke to Fionn Carr who would undertake a similar journey.
The young outhalf, who played such a pivotal role in the Ireland under-20 Grand Slam of last year, admitted: "I needed a fresh start, an outlet to compete for regular first-team action. There are so many great players in the Leinster squad and I knew where I stood at the end of last season. I spoke to Michael (Cheika) about it and he understood my reasons.
"I was well aware that I would face tough competition for a place in the Connacht team with players like Andy Dunne and Tim Donnelly but I wanted to take that chance. I signed a one-year deal, knowing that it would be my first experience away from home."
His rugby career had started as a six-year-old in the local Suttonians rugby club, before enrolling at Belvedere in third class changed his focus from club to school. He didn't start at JCT level but in fifth year made the senior team that included Healy, O'Donohue and O'Malley. Belvedere won the Leinster Schools' Senior Cup in 2005.
Underage representative rugby followed, the highlight of which was the Grand Slam. Keatley then played in a couple of Churchill Cups with Ireland A but arguably the catalyst for the form he has shown with Connacht this season came while playing for an Ireland Sevens team that competed on the circuit - it followed a long hiatus of the national team not playing the abbreviated format - trying to qualify for next year's Sevens World Cup in Dubai.
"I owe John Skurr and Allen Clarke a great deal because my development as a player was accelerated by playing Sevens."
The game complements his skills base; great feet, good balance, excellent vision and a silky runner with the ability to beat people. The challenge for Keatley when he arrived in Connacht was to nurture other qualities.
He excelled in pre-season matches and was given an opportunity which he has grasped well. His place-kicking statistics are above 75 per cent in the Magners League and the European Challenge Cup while he has worked hard on game management, tactical kicking and defensive responsibilities. "There's still plenty of scope for improvement but I'm working hard. That's my priority; to get my head down and try to keep improving.
"Michael Bradley and the rest of the coaches have been very supportive, very positive and it's a good working environment. Obviously while I have personal goals in improving myself, my primary concern is the Connacht team. The priority is to try and finish as high as possible in the Magners League, and our next game in a few weeks time is against Ulster. It's a game we have targeted."
No more so than the recent Leinster match at the Sportsground, where Connacht prevailed 19-18. The match had a special resonance for Keatley. "Obviously it was always going to be an important game for me personally but I'm more pleased about the result than any personal kudos. It was nice to win the man of the match but in the context of what we're trying to achieve in Connacht, the victory was more important."
He kicked flawlessly that night, his deliberate routine unerring. In referring to the latter Keatley smiles: "Yes it's very much a personal thing," explaining the six bounces or knee flexes he takes before striking the ball. "It's funny, for the European Challenge Cup match away to Dax, the crowd starting cheering after every bounce. I don't mind in the slightest, it certainly doesn't bother me. I think I had a smirk on my face most of the night.
"I suppose the routine began at school and while I have refined it a bit, it's largely the same."
For those wondering why there are six knee flexes and not three or seven, Keatley explained: "I take two bounces looking at the ball, two looking at the posts and then a final two looking at the strike point on the ball." It's working.
In the Leinster game he managed to put housemate Seán Cronin through a gap leading to Michael McCarthy's try and also brought off a try-saving tackle on Rocky Elsom. It was a good night but he wants many more of them. To this end he's committed to working harder, learning to mesh individual qualities into a package whereby he can control matches from outhalf.
He was mentioned as a possible outsider to make Declan Kidney's extended national squad. It didn't happen. "It was nice to have my name thrown in there but I know I need to develop more. I have made a good start to the season but that's all it is. There's plenty more work to do if I am to put myself in a position of being considered for Ireland."
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