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Dublin: 6 °C Tuesday 26 March, 2019
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'I know Johnny's number one, but you can't just accept that' - Ian Keatley

The Munster out-half had a strong showing in Rome as Ireland beat Italy.

Murray Kinsella reports from Rome

IAN KEATLEY IS one of the good guys in rugby.

He’s courteous, open, and never appears to take the media portion of his job as being an unwanted sideshow. Yesterday evening in Rome, the 27-year-old exuded happiness, apparently still buzzing after making a successful Six Nations debut.

Why wouldn’t he be?

Ian Keatley kicks a penalty Keatley was 100% off the tee for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

He’s taken what Paul O’Connell referred to as “a long road” to get into Ireland’s 10 shirt for such an important game. It may prove that Johnny Sexton comes straight back into the starting XV to face France next weekend, but those post-match hours were ones well worth savouring for Keatley.

The Dublin native was as honest as ever in the mixed zone deep in the bowels of Stadio Olimpico post-match, admitting to having felt some pressure on a momentous occasion.

“I was pretty nervous at the start,” admitted Keatley. “I think that first [penalty] kick, I was just relieved it went over, but I’m just annoyed I had a bit of a shaky start, the first 10 minutes getting settled in.

But then I felt I was getting into my rhythm and things went well from there. We knew they would put it up to us for the good majority of the match; we knew we would have to break them down and I think we did.”

It wasn’t only out on the pitch that Keatley experienced those nerves, having had the entire week to prepare himself mentally. Some players lose the battle before they even make matchday, but Keatley turned his anxiousness into a positive.

“A few times during leading up to the match I got nervous,” says the former Connacht back. “I was just thinking to myself that I remembered watching Ireland winning in France last year.

“And I just remembered how much at the time I wanted to be there. I was actually watching it on my own at home, and I really wanted to be out there.

Ian Keatley gives away his boots after the game Keatley gave away Sean Cronin's boots after the game. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“So whenever I got nervous in the week leading up to this game I just reminded myself that this is where you want to be, so suck it up really. Nerves can be a positive or a negative in a match, everyone gets nervous because it means so much to you.

“If you didn’t get nervous it probably wouldn’t mean much to you. So it’s just a few deep breaths with the kicking. Out of hand there’s a couple I rushed, but after the first 10 minutes once I got settled I felt comfortable out there.”

Keatley headed off to last night’s black tie dinner in Rome with all the body language of a man content with having done his job well at the end of a difficult week.

“We got told on Tuesday morning, the team was announced,” explained Keatley. “That’s when we find out, just to give us a bit more preparation. So I found out Tuesday and didn’t have a clue before that.

“Joe pulled me aside and just said ‘we’re going to go with you this weekend’, he gave me a few words of advice, things to work on and I had a big smirk on my face when he was talking to me.

“Obviously you get mixed emotions; you’re chuffed, but you get nervous as well because you don’t want to let the team down and hopefully I didn’t do that today.”

Alongside 27-year-old Keatley in Rome yesterday was 25-year-old Conor Murray, the latter winning his 31st cap as Keatley reached number four. It points to how long the out-half has had to wait for his opportunity.

Ian Keatley There were nerves but Keatley enjoyed his first Six Nations start. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

From home province Leinster to Connacht in 2008, then on to Munster in 2011 to play back-up to Ronan O’Gara, before finally claiming the southern province’s 10 shirt over the last two seasons.

Were international honours in his mind all along?

“Not everyone can just be a superstar and break through, you need a little bit of luck,” said Keatley.

“I’ve made some big decisions in my career, going to Connacht and then Munster, I’ve just been working hard so that if I ever did get this opportunity I would be ready for it. It is a bit of a roundabout route but a lot of players have to do it that way.

“A lot of players get lucky breaks, they get in, but a lot have to work like I did, to keep fighting and keep improving. Some players just fall off as well, and that’s the highs and lows of rugby.

“It’s a long way around but I’m here at the moment and hopefully I’m going to stay here.”

Keatley’s strong outing in Rome puts him in good stead within the Ireland squad moving forward, but in the short-term the returning Johnny Sexton seems likely to reclaim number one ranking in the out-half pecking order.

Ian Keatley's jersey Keatley will remember cap number four more than any other. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Keatley is under no illusions, but won’t go without a fight. He and Ian Madigan will now battle for the replacement spot in the matchday 23.

“To be honest Johnny’s done so well over the last three or four years he deserves the number-one position. He’s one of the best out-halves in the world, so to be honest I presume that he’s going to be straight in there for the French match even though he hasn’t played in a while.

“He’s still been keeping fit and you need Johnny Sexton in your team. With the sub position I don’t know what’s going to happen there, I’m just delighted with the win today first and foremost.

“And I can still iron out things in my performance, I’m sure I’ll go through it with Joe and just look to improve. I can take a lot of confidence from this, but also I need to know where I want to get to.

“I know that Johnny is number one, but you can’t just accept that. If you’re looking to play second-fiddle to someone the whole time you’re not going to improve personally.

“So that’s what I want to do, I want to keep improving and just keep challenging Johnny and hopefully play in more big games like this.”

- This article was updated at 11.22 on Sunday 8 February to correct ‘Clontarf native’ to ‘Dublin native’. We apologise to anyone offended.

The caption underneath the second photograph was also altered to reflect the fact that Keatley gave away Sean Cronin’s boots after the game, not his own.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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