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'It’s like a car racing game. No one ever picks the view when you're in the car'

Ian Keatley talks about how Munster’s mindset has helped their attacking kicking game.

WHEN AN OUT-half is playing with confidence, there are usually a few common details that underline their mental belief.

Confident striking off the tee is one tell-tale sign, while visibly strong communication can also give us an insight into the playmaker’s mindset. Another thread that links in-form 10s together is an ability to pick out space in the opposition’s backfield.

Ian Keatley is enjoying a resurgent season as Munster’s first-choice out-half and the three factors above, among others, are evident in his game.

[image alt="Ian Keatley" src="http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2018/01/ian-keatley-63-630x419.jpg" width="630" height="419" class="alignnone" /end]

The 30-year-old has a smile on his face, even when tasked with speaking to the media before Sunday’s Champions Cup clash with Racing 92 at the U Arena in Paris [KO 3.15pm Irish time, Sky Sports].

Keatley explains that the birth of his daughter last year means he is better at taking his mind off rugby – “early in the morning, late at night and all through the night!” – and he cuts a relaxed and content figure.

“I remember Rassie [Erasmus] said it to me when he first came in, when he was talking about my confidence and stuff. He was like, ‘Keats, you have no idea – when you have a family and you put things into perspective, rugby won’t matter to you at all’.

“It does still matter, don’t get me wrong, but I could see where he was coming from when he made those comments.”

With all well off the field and Keatley obsessing about his game less, the results on the pitch have been a pleasure to watch for Munster fans, while Joe Schmidt called on Keatley in November.

One of the most impressive areas of Keatley’s game this season is the aforementioned ability to pick out space in the backfield with his attacking kicking game, particularly chip and grubber kicks.

We can look to last weekend’s win over Connacht for the most recent example of Keatley finding and exploiting the space with a clever attacking kick, teeing up Andrew Conway for his first try.

[image alt="Keatley Kick" src="http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2018/01/keatley-kick-2-630x352.gif" width="630" height="352" title="" class="alignnone" /end]

It’s a delicate touch from Keatley with his right boot, but it’s worth noting exactly what kind of situation he is taking advantage of.

If we rewind to the previous phase, we can see that Connacht fullback Tiernan O’Halloran [circled in white below] has had to commit up into the front line to make a tackle.

[image alt="1" src="http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2018/01/1-429-630x352.png" width="630" height="352" title="" class="alignnone" /end]

Connacht have Matt Healy in the backfield here [offscreen, but his next movement is marked in blue] and scrum-half Caolin Blade is sweeping across in behind the defence [red].

While that might suggest Connacht have enough bodies to cover themselves on the next phase, quick ball and an offload from Rhys Marshall mean Munster have an overlap and both Healy [blue] and Blade [red] commit up into the line, as we can see below.

[image alt="2" src="http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2018/01/2-367-630x352.png" width="630" height="352" title="" class="alignnone" /end]

That leaves a window of space for Keatley and Munster, and though we can see above that O’Halloran [white] is back on his feet and doing his utmost to cover across, his actions are reactive and hurried, leading to a slip as the ball bobbles along the ground.

Conway darts onto Keatley’s grubber and dots the ball down to reward the accurate attacking kick from his out-half.


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It’s a neat example of Munster taking advantage of the available space on the pitch to break the opposition down, and Keatley points out that head coach Johann van Graan is backing his players to make these calls based on what they see at pitch level.

“We are just focusing on making sure we can get try and get the ball into space,” says Keatley. “Sometimes the space is carrying yourself, sometimes the space is passing or sometimes the space might be putting it through or even we might have to go aerially – contestables. We are trying to get a nice balance to our game.

“We are not saying we were making wrong decisions – it is all based on the right decision-making. If it is the right thing to do and doesn’t come off, we are still saying it is the right thing to do, so keep going with it.

“If we try something magical and it is not the right thing to do, then we start questioning our decision-making there.”

That decision-making freedom is key for a playmaker like Keatley, but it’s not all about the out-half on these attacking kicks.

In the instance above and so many others, Keatley is also relying on communication from the outside to let him know where the space has opened up. Intriguingly, Munster’s language within this area has recently been tweaked.

[image alt="Ian Keatley" src="http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2018/01/ian-keatley-64-630x420.jpg" width="630" height="420" title="" class="alignnone" /end]

“We talked about giving solutions rather than talking about problems,” explains Keatley. “I think what we used to do is say, ‘There’s a guy shooting on you [racing up out of the defensive line], rather than… we’ve got a call to put the ball through so when I’m passing the ball if I hear the buzz word for putting the ball through, I’ll go with it.

“If [you're told] there is a guy shooting on you, you’re looking for him rather than kicking. It’s so much easier and it makes my job a lot easier.”

While much of Munster’s attack remains a work in progress, these are encouraging signs in these types of kicks.

The decision-making responsibility is something Keatley and his team-mates welcome heartily, even if the reality on the pitch can be very different to what we see from the stands or on the TV.

“I think what Johann and Rassie have brought in is that we as players take a lot more leadership on the pitch and make decisions on the pitch.

“When you look from up above, you can see the space but it’s completely different when you’re actually in the game.

“It’s like a car racing game, you know, and people change the view to where they can just see the front of the car and the corner coming up. No one ever picks the view when you’re in the car because it’s a lot harder.

“And us as players, we see that view, so that’s why Johann has given us a lot more responsibility on the pitch to make those calls because we can feel what’s happening on the pitch and it might look differently from another view.”

* The headline of this article was updated at 11.32am on 13 January to correct ‘where’ to ‘when’. 

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