Ian Keatley doesn’t massage the truth, writes Brendan O’Brien.
When he drove away from Ireland’s Carton House HQ during last season’s Six Nations he thought it was likely for the last time as a national player.
And with good reason.
By the time the tournament ended he had managed just five minutes at the fag end of the second game, a 63-10 romp away to Italy, and his fringe status was such that he actually played three times for Munster in that same period.
Jonathan Sexton was still lording the manor at No.10, Paddy Jackson was established as the de facto back-up and a young kid called Joey Carbery had already proven his chops with Leinster and Joe Schmidt’s side.
At 29, and with just five caps to his name, Keatley’s international race looked run.
“I remember saying to myself ‘that is probably the last time I will play for Ireland’. But even after I said that I remember saying to myself, ‘I am just going to enjoy myself from now on’. I think a lot of players do. You put a lot of pressure on yourself.
“There were times when I wasn’t enjoying myself. I said I’m just going to enjoy myself playing rugby now. Funnily enough, now that I’m enjoying myself and playing better, another opportunity comes to play for Ireland. (Former Munster defence coach) Jacques Nienaber said it can be fun but not funny.”
It’s a fine balance but the tweak in attitude has clearly worked.
Keatley has known tough times with Munster but he has impressed at provincial level this season. He came on against Fiji last Saturday with Ireland staring down the barrel of an unlikely and difficult-to-swallow defeat and steered the side home with two nerveless penalties in a 23-20 win.
No single thing has changed.
There has been no Damascene Conversion. Just an easing of tension on the spring inside himself as a player and as a person. And a realisation that less can be more when it comes to pushing himself and proving himself.
He no longer ‘drives himself nuts’, training for hours to fix things. He relaxes more away from the game as well and the passing of Anthony Foley provided a large dollop of perspective as to any of the problems he may have been experiencing as a player.
Having a family was a factor, too, his daughter Beth arriving earlier this year and playing a key role in his decision to ultimately ignore a handful of offers from clubs in England and France and instead stay and fight his battles with Munster and, once again, Ireland.
“You just see things differently,” he explains, stressing the role that his girlfriend and family played in his new demeanour. “It’s hard to put your finger on it. Literally, something happens one day and suddenly everything clicks.”
He doesn’t want it to sound like he is some happy-clappy guy on the pitch. It’s not like he stands over place kicks thinking ‘isn’t life great?’ but he has a better handle on things in terms of rugby and life itself.
“It’s hard to say and it’s easier said than done. You can’t just say, ‘go out there and enjoy yourself.’ I suppose that is just life experience. I think I’ve become a better person for it. I think you have to go through some things to come out the other end just to realise really.”
That perseverance has met its reward.
With Jackson unavailable this season and Carbery now injured, Keatley will take his place on the bench for Saturday’s Test against Argentina and he feels much better prepared for the call if it should come again.
Six caps still qualifies him as something of a Test rookie but plays and calls that once took remembering roll off his tongue now and he cites his considerable European experience with Munster and Connacht as another string to his bow.
“I’m ready regardless of the circumstances. Once again, I’m just enjoying being there, learning from Joe Schmidt and the other coaches. It’s exciting. I’m enjoying myself, not getting complacent but still trying to improve as a player.”