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'All she cares about is when she sees you on the pitch, you can hear her going 'Dada''

Ian Keatley doesn’t need sports psychology tools right now, his family keep him firmly grounded in the here and now.

Pictured playing for Benetton in this year’s GUINNESS PRO14 is Ian Keatley who shared his experiences coping with the Covid-19 Pandemic.
Pictured playing for Benetton in this year’s GUINNESS PRO14 is Ian Keatley who shared his experiences coping with the Covid-19 Pandemic.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

Updated Apr 2nd 2020, 8:01 PM

YOUNG BETH’S EARS must have been burning, because she arrived into shot right on cue.

Her third act introduction didn’t quite come with the drama or bombast that featured in the infamous BBC interview with Professor Robert Kelly as he discussed the state of relations between North and South Korea (you know the one).

Yet it was fitting that the youngest in the Keatley household would show up. She had been the subject of conversation as her father discussed some of the new horizons that dawned for him over the past 12 months and, of course the topic of the day: lockdown,  how to cope with it and the steps that kept him marginally ahead of Italy’s Covid-19 restriction measures and back to his family home in north Dublin.

It can’t be how Ian Keatley and his wife Lisa pictured the early months of marriage, but he’s fortunate to have gone this route. Because while many of his Benetton team-mates are under lockdown in Treviso, his decision to get back to Dublin after his last Guinness Pro14 appearance in the win away to the Dragons four weeks ago means he is living with loved ones and well within two kilometers of a beach to stretch his legs.

With three generations under one roof, boredom hasn’t been an issue. Nor has mindfulness or staying focused on the moment at hand and elements in his control.

“I think the best sports psychologist I could ever have had was probably having a daughter,” Keatley says as he looks down the camera lens for a Zoom call.

“Because she just takes up all your time. And you don’t really mind about playing bad in a match, or missing a kick when you come back (home). And all she cares about is when she sees you out on the pitch, you can just hear her going ‘Dada’…  and as long as she’s happy that’s all that really matters to me to be honest with you.”

That’s a sentiment Keatley has held for some time now and he has been able to strike the balance between letting the disappointments of sport slide off and still giving his all to rugby when he can.

His later years as a Munster player were played with a noticeable smile on his face both physically and metaphorically. Sunrise, sunset. The death of Anthony Foley followed by Beth’s arrival helped him to put everything in its proper perspective.

“I always had a good mindset,” says the just-turned 33-year-old as he looks back on a time before fatherhood, “but when things get tough you kind of wish you thought a bit differently sometimes.

“Because, when times get tough on the rugby pitch or you don’t play well, it’s not because you don’t try, it’s because you want to… you feel like you’ve let so many people down in a team sport.

ian-keatley-is-presented-with-the-guinness-pro14-man-of-the-match-award-by-emanuele-brianti Keatley collects his man of the match award after the pre-Christmas win over Zebre. Source: Giuseppe Fama/INPHO

“So if you don’t play well, if you don’t kick well, (now) you don’t feel like you’ve let yourself down you’ve let so many people down. Especially your team-mates who work so hard, we all work so hard, so when you don’t… my daughter’s knocking on the door.”

And with that, Keatley was holding his two-year-old to wave down the camera and melt the hearts of even cold and cynical sportswriters. A brief inquisition over why Fining Nemo lost its only viewer for the matinee showing is followed by the setting of a mission to find mammy and the seven-time Ireland international seamlessly picks up the sentence where he left off.

“I kind of wish I thought like that when I was a little bit younger. Just to have that… you just didn’t want to let people down.”

He has freed himself from carrying that burden, but he is grateful not to have imminent concerns for his future as his Benetton contract runs up to June 2021 and feels for those who are missing out on the chance to play for renewals.

“That’s not a rugby problem,” he adds sagely, “I think everyone on the planet is thinking that way at the moment.”

Before the world was turned upside down by the Coronavirus pandemic and Keatley sent his wife and child back to Ireland ahead of him when there was no school or playground to keep Beth busy, the out-half was relishing life post-Munster.

He spent the latter portion of last season with London Irish, helping the Exiles secure promotion from the Championship. That alone was a taste of a rugby world far removed from the Irish system. ‘The bubble’ is a valuable tool, but Keatley’s enthusiasm ensured he burst clear of it to enjoy the new experiences in front of him.

“Leaving Munster was such a big decision. You have that fear, ‘oh did I make the right decision?’ Within two or three days, you just realise that outside of that bubble that you get yourself into… that there’s more to rugby than being in that bubble.

“Don’t get me wrong, it was great when I was in it. I loved it. I loved everything about Munster.”

ian-keatley-kicks-a-drop-goal-to-win-the-game Keatley celebrating his last-gasp drop-goal to secure a win away to Sale in 2014. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Keatley highlights the cultures he has since been exposed to through team-mates at both Irish and Benetton. 13 nationalities graced the dressing room when he played in London and he counts Tongans and Fijians as close friends since the move to Italy.

“You’re meeting people from all across the world from different cultures, different ways of life. It was just a real nice experience.

“Treviso is such a great place in the world: we’re 20 minutes away from Venice, we’re an hour and a half away from Lake Garda, we’re an hour away from the ski slopes, we’re 20 minutes away from the beach.

“If you get in a car and drive for two hours, you’re in Croatia or Slovenia, so, it’s a different experience. If I drive two hours from Limerick, I’m in Dublin. So it’s a nice, different experience.”

“I just went with an open mind. You just have to dive into these things 100% and give it your all which I’ve been trying to do. You can’t always regret or think, ‘I should have done this, I should have done that.’ You just have to go in with an open mind and I’ve done that. I’ve loved every minute of it. It hasn’t been all perfect but things have gone extremely well.”

With time, he’ll be back in Benetton colours and aiding the Italian club as they attempt to get back on their feet in a region that has been severely hit by the pandemic. But before rugby comes back into view, he won’t be short of things to keep him busy thanks to Beth and her grandparents.

“I haven’t been home longer than a week in my parent’s house since I moved to Connacht when I was 20/21. That’s been nice, just hanging out with my Mom and Dad.

“Helping them now to clean out the house, doing the garden, clean the garage, clean the attic. Just spending quality time with them. My daughter is getting to spend time with her Granny and Grandad because when you live in Italy, it’s not like they can just pop down to see us.”

All any of us can do in this situation is look after our own little patch of the world.

First published today at 18.36. 

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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