Keatley against Edinburgh last weekend. INPHO/Billy Stickland

Interview: O'Gara's loss is Keatley's gain

The 25-year-old gets a rare chance at outhalf in the Heineken Cup as Munster take on Racing Metro at Thomond Park tomorrow.

MUNSTER HAVE MADE just one change to the team which defeated Edinburgh for their final Heineken Cup pool game with Racing Metro on Sunday – and it’s a particularly significant one.

After being cited for kicking out at lock Sean Cox, Ronan O’Gara will have been relieved to learn that he has escaped with a one-week ban and won’t miss any of the Six Nations but must sit out this weekend.

Replacing Munster’s most-capped player is a man who has had to bide his time for opportunities at number 10. Ian Keatley will make just his third start in the competition as Rob Penney’s charges look to secure one of two best runners-up spots with a win over their French opponents at Thomond Park.

The situation will be clearer after Saturday’s fixtures and while it may not prove necessary, a four-try bonus point should be the aim as they look to progress to the last-eight.

Keatley has enjoyed his most productive season so far since arriving from Connacht in 2011 but, playing second fiddle to O’Gara, much of his rugby at outhalf has come in the RaboDirect Pro12.

He has also filled in at full-back during the current campaign and although his versatility is a useful asset, he is determined to succeed in his favoured position and occasionally reminds the coaching staff of that fact.

Now, after a week in which Penney prepared for every possibility by running through drills with O’Gara, Keatley and JJ Hanrahan in the role, the Dubliner has been given the nod.

And speaking to earlier this week, the 25-year-old said he is he is eager to grab the rare chance to start with both hands.

“I feel I’m ready and am backing my own ability,” Keatley said. “I’m 25 and not getting any younger, so I think now is the perfect time for me to kick on. I’ve proven it in the Rabo for a few seasons now and this has probably been my best so I want to keep moving up.

“I got a chance to start at 10 (in the Heineken Cup) against Edinburgh at Thomond Park earlier in the season. We got a bonus point victory in that one and I thought I played well but I’ve had to be patient.

I’ve been playing pretty well and asking questions. It’s good for myself and ROG as this competition will push us to play better and it can only be good for Munster. I am looking forward to Sunday and playing in such a big match in front of the home support.”

It has been a topic of much debate in the media over recent months, with some maintaining the time has come to drop O’Gara and throw his understudy - a player 10 years his junior – in at the deep end. Just this week, former Munster hooker Jerry Flannery was singing Keatley’s praises.

“I don’t think you can play too much attention to it (talk in the media),” says Keatley.  ”It is nice to hear when you get support but if they’re calling for my inclusion then I’ve to back that up and prove myself at that level, which in fairness Ronan has done for years.

“That’s probably why he is there at the moment. He would be a hard person to leave out of your team.”

Keatley and O’Gara. Credit: INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Keatley adds that while the rivalry between the pair is fierce, it bodes well for a Munster side currently going through a transitional period.

“We’re both pretty similar in that we’re both professional in the way we do things. We have different styles of playing and have our own ways to run the team. There is a little bit of bite but that’s what’s going to get the best out of myself and Ronan.

I’m trying to take his position, he’s trying to keep it. That’s good as you need competition in the team but it’s not only me and ROG as there’s loads throughout the squad, which is great for Munster and will help us improve.”

On the international front, Keatley was again left disappointed after being overlooked by Declan Kidney for the extended Six Nations squad, which was named on Thursday. He received a phone call from Ireland’s head coach before news broke that he wouldn’t be involved in the November internationals, but had to settle with a letter to explain that he is on stand-by this time around.

For a player who represented his country all the way up from schools rugby, being unable to add to the two caps he won during the tour of North America in 2009 is clearly hard to take. However, Keatley knows the only way to improve his chances is to cement his place in the first XV at club level.

I was pretty upset  at not being included but I know I need to be starting for my province. When you look at the others – obviously (Jonathan) Sexton and ROG are starting, Paddy Jackson has started the whole time at Ulster and Ian Madigan is playing, even at full-back so they’ve all been regular starters.

“I think that’s the one thing that is holding me back at the moment. If I want to progress with Ireland I need to be playing. It’s frustrating as it has been my best season – my kicking stats are up there, I’m playing good rugby and creating a lot of chances for the team. I just need to keep my head down and this Sunday is another chance for me.”

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