The King is dead, long live … Ian Keatley?

The new season approacheth.  The season tickets have arrived.  Anticipation builds.  We’re back in the hotseat.  Rather than write dullsville ‘season previews’ for each Irish province, we’re going to focus on a couple of themes that will be woth following over the season.  First up, the impossible art of replacing the irreplaceable.

With the move of Ronan O’Gara from the playing sphere into the coaching sphere, it isn’t just Rodrigo Roncero who is devastated by the news. The last time Munster started a season with someone other than the apple-cheeked charmer at outhalf, Munster weren’t even … Munster, as we now know them. It was still the era of bugger-all fans, Shannon making a serious pitch to play in their stead in the HEC and an unknown shrewd and reticent Cork teacher taking training sessions off his own bat. The soaring ambition, silverware and modern stadium that now characterise Munster rugby were such pipe dreams as to be a laughable conceit.

Whoever steps into O’Gara’s boots in the long term has to deal with the expectation and standards that his generation brought to the table – keeping the score to less than 50 isn’t where they are at now. O’Gara might have played like a pub player at times for Ireland last year, but he was instrumental in guiding Munster past the Awesome Power of Chris Robshaw and Harlequins and then putting the heart across Mental Strength Gurus Clermont Auvergne in the next round.

For all the impressive performances Ian Keatley put out in the first half of the Pro12, and his apparent greater suitability for Rob Penney’s vision for Munster, he never hesitated in selecting Radge for those massive games.

But now that Radge is sipping Cotes du Rhone with Pippo Contepomi in Mario Ledesma’s Parisian bolthole, will Keatley be able to step up to the plate and be that HEC standard outhalf Munster need? Keatley has shown himself to be a capable fly-half, but worryingly inconsistent.  He can look great one minute and mediocre the next.  Can he put in the sort of performances Munster will need to steer them around the toughest grounds in Europe?  Moreover, patience isn’t going to be given to a guy who has had two years to learn from O’Gara. Plus the age profile of other Irish out-halves combined with career path of Keatley means that this is essentially his final chance to nail a starting shirt in the HEC for an Irish province. No pressure.

The Munster faithful are putting a huge amount of faith and hope in young gun JJ Hanrahan, who has looked a genuine playmaker on the few occasions we’ve seen him.  Problem is, dropping a guy with a handful of appearances (just five starts, all bar one at inside centre, and six reserve appearances) into a key position and asking him to emulate the best you’ve ever had is such a huge ask as to be ridiculous. Again, no pressure. At least when Ulster threw Paddy Jackson in at the deep end, Jackson had come through years of schools and underage rugby playing the position exclusively – and for all that, Jackson’s tenure at fly-half for Ulster has been far from smooth.  It was only when Ulster held Jackson back from last year’s JRWC that Hanrahan played at 10, deputising for the pear-cheeked Belfast crooner.

The trouble with replacing O’Gara is that it has to happen not only on the pitch but in the hearts and minds of the fans.  As great a player and dominant a personality as Jonny Sexton admitted that he struggled with it for a long time.  For Ian Keatley, it will be pressure on a scale he has never experienced.  We also have a sense that among Munster fans, he is on the backfoot a little, and is seen as a bit of a Leinster reject.  The will of the people is for Hanrahan to leapfrog him into the first team.  At least his replacement won’t have to endure ROG-cam every time he fluffs a kick, although we won’t rule out RTE having a special set-up cutting to ROG in his Parisian living room watching on telly.

One other key reason for Munster to get this one right revolves around the future of the man who’ll be dishing out the passes to either of these men – the Lions best scrum half and Simon Zebo’s good friend, Conor Murray. The good news for whoever ends up playing at 10 is that they will be paired with an authoritative and skilful scrum-half.  The bad news (for the IRFU) is that they have to pay him his worth and satisfy his ambitions.  With Murray’s performaces last season and his ongoing (and mystifying) contractual wranglings, you can bet your bottom dollar there will be some French clubs dangling huge carrots under his nose in the coming months (remember Sexton’s conversations with the union and RM started to get serious in November last year) – if outhalf becomes a problem position for Munster and begins to look like a multi-year project, will Murray consider strolling off to, say, Perpignan for a few years in the sun and come back when it’s sorted? Maybe, maybe not.

These are interesting times at fly-half for all of the ‘big three’, with Ian Madigan about to be thrust into the role of first choice 10 at Leinster, while up North, Paddy Jackson is continuing to try and stamp his authority on a team where the scrum half acts as chief playmaker.  With O’Gara out of the picture, the role as deputy to Sexton at international level is up for grabs.  Of the chasing pack, Madigan is currently well in front, having made the Lions reserve list and been selected on the summer tour of North America, but things can change quickly.

Munster might appear to have a bye to the HEC quarter-finals, but it’s easy to forget how often O’Gara took the points that his pack were offering up – if Keatley or Hanrahan don’t impress early on, a double header with a rejuvenated USAP suddenly will begin looking pretty tough and must-win. Just the way O’Gara would like it – what about Keatley or Hanrahan?

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  1. Apple-cheeked, pear-cheeked – Seasons of mist & mellow fruitfulness indeed. Keats to play 10 for Munster?

  2. Bushmills

     /  September 2, 2013

    I can’t remember which game, but I watched a great game on telly last year where Keatly played at 12 in a NZ style “2nd 5/8ths” role. Perhaps our Munster friends can remember better than me, but it struck me at the time a clever use of Keatlys talents, and may be an option to utilize both Keatly and the rising star of Hanrahan this season??

    • Can’t remember the game etiher, but I think you’re right. I expect we’ll see Keatley and Hanrahan line up alongside one another at 10-12 (in which order I’m not entirely sure) some stage.

      • Was it Cardiff? One of the only games where we both misfired and looked slick in equal measure.

        • Owen Franks

           /  September 5, 2013

          As far as I know Hanrahan is originally a 12. It would seem a good call to let him play there for a bit if you ask me. When was the last time munster had a quality home grown inside centre? For that matter Ireland will be having up-coming seletion issues at 12 with Darcy moving on, Luke Marshall consistently being riddled with injuries, Stuart Olding looks good too if a little lightweight (same issue JJ would have) and the two boys McSharry and Murphy in Connacht show some serious potential every now and again. Munster will likely stick with Downey crashing it up, as they should considering I think this suits the game-plan better but it would be great to see JJ get some exposure as a play-making centre. It is good to see there are a number of young (ish) lads around the provinces looking at Darcys shirt in the future!
          On another note, why was Hanrahan so under-used last year? Rumour had it that he missed a flight home from pre-season in France and fell out of Penneys good books -probably pure conjecture. Serfontaine, who he competed with for world Junior player of the year has had quite a bit of exposure in the same position in Super Rugby…..
          Keatley is a good player but that’s as far as it goes, he will do a job but wont be a tallisman. I dont mean to disrepspect the lad, he has been a great servant to both connacht and Munster but he is a Rabo standard player and that’s about it. An out-half is needed from somewhere in the long term. As you say many think it is JJ but I reckon he, Munster and Ireland would be better served at 12…..If only Diarmuid McCarthy had kept up the rugby – JJ at 10 and him at 12 would be a serious combo!

          • JJ played most of his Youths, Schools and AIL rugby at 10. He played 12 for the Irish U20s, so that both he and Jackson could be accommodated. With Munster having only three 10s on their books, he probably won’t play a lot at 12. Bohane is the more likely bolter for the season in that position.

  3. Keatley played 12 against Cardiff away and Zebre away, outside O’Gara and Hanrahan respectively.

    Rog has retired, but the old gags are still going strong.

    Four matches between now and Leinster in Thomond, by which point there’ll be a decision. Keatley will probably get Edinburgh and Treviso. Hanrahan, Zebre and Dragons. Treviso is the decisive fixture. The others should be reasonably comfortable victories.

    • Keatley looked on fire at the start of last season especially against Ulster in Belfast but it was like a switch turned off in him when ROG came on in that game. He showed flair at times during the rest of the season but I think for the most part he already knew after that game that ROG would still get the nod for the big games.

      Perhaps an even more interesting question regarding Ireland’s second 10 is who do you fancy to be the best utility option? Unless Sexton is injured he’s almost guaranteed to start, at which point the bench spot goes to the player Joe sees as the player who can cover the most positions most competently. On form I’d probably have madigan ahead of keatley at 10, but at 12 or even 15? Probably Keatley, especially 12 in fact.

      • I wouldn’t expect Keatley to be in contention unless he’s playing better than Madigan at 10. Outhalf is so important that you should have the second best player in the position on the bench. Versatility is nice, but it’s not crucial that Keatley is potentially a slightly better 12 or 15 than Madigan. It’s crucial that the next-best 10 comes on the pitch should the first-choice get an injury. If Jackson starts the season better, the same goes for him, in my opinion. Sexton can play 12 and there should be enough versatility in the rest of the squad to cover the other positions.

        • Bowe Gathers

           /  September 2, 2013

          I saw iMads play at 15 in Ravenhill and I thought that he had a stormer (which Leinster as a whole did not). He covered everything, played the corners excellently and really impressed with his reading of the game, particularly in defense, which isn’t always his forte. Likewise he always presents a running threat to an offensive line in a way that Keats doesn’t, and PJ probably never will. Small point perhaps, but Mads is as versatile as they come really.

  4. Keatley can play 12 but also at 15. This could easily work against him if he ends up being shifted around to accommodate others and/or provide emergency cover, as a Keet Mk II.

    It’s interesting that you mention his career path as something that might work against him. The Connacht mantra was nothing beats game time, but I guess you’re not 100% convinced. I can see pros and cons, but the stigma of a career that was spent mostly playing Amlin games rather than HEC ones and rare examples of him leading a team to victory might be hard to shift I guess.

  5. Peat

     /  September 3, 2013

    Speaking of utility – there’s been some mutterings that Olding will get a real punt at 10 some point this season. If he can prove himself there – bit of a way off I know – he’s probably the most versatile of the lot.

    But then, if Olding proves himself at 10, the pressure on Jackson becomes huge. I believe in Jackson’s talent, but then I believe in Olding’s as well…

    • Connachtexile

       /  September 3, 2013

      Your forgetting James McKinney whose is a great talent as well. He’s a different type of player to Jackson but I think someone who will run Jackson close this year for the number 10. Olding might get a chance at outhalf but with Paddy Wallace near retirement age I can see him becoming a 12 and competing with Marshall for that jersey.

      • Peat

         /  September 4, 2013

        Not forgetting him, just don’t believe in him. Never looked equal to Jackson at U20 level and had a few of my friends wishing for the return of NOC after the Leinster friendly – which is about the ultimate criticism they could have levelled! Don’t wish to prejudge him, but right now there’s a very simple pecking order out of the three for me and it has McKinney at the bottom.

        As for Olding in the centre – think we’ll see some of that, I suspect he’ll do a season of utility back. Whether he’ll stick there, gods knows, we’ve got centres coming out of our ears at the moment and it’s impossible to say how this ends.

        • Gents, I’m a fan of Darren Cave, and in recent seasons there have been times where out backline has not functioned as an attacking force in his absence.

          However, if Olding continues on the trajectory of last season – a huge if, let’s be clear, because he looks well ahead of any other teenager we’ve had, well, ever (since Ulster became a club as well as a province) – then it’s hard to see him not getting in the team.

          So, where does he fit? My opinion is that – this, coincidentally, also helps with the view to replacing the Big Green 13, because I have a very clear view of who the best man for the job is, even if I’m not a fan of the three-year rule – Ulster’s best back line may turn out to be:

          Trimble/Gilroy, Marshall, Payne, Bowe

          Interesting times, nonetheless.

          • Bowe Gathers

             /  September 4, 2013

            Saw James McKinney at the Leinster friendly and it was forgettable to say the least. Olding is a magical little 5/8th, but then we’ve had a naturally talented smallish 5/8th before and his potential was never fulfilled – they need to be clear with him as to whether he’s a ten, or a twelve or even further outfield. PJ is the favourite son (Methody Mafia grumble grumble) but he may well fail to perform, and if he does I can’t see McKinney doing the business.

          • ORiordan

             /  September 4, 2013

            McKinney was brought back in the hope that he would be at least better than NOC but IMO the jury is definitely still out on that. Ulster need a competent backup 10 as PJ is likely to be away on Ireland squad duty and Pienaar at 10 has always just been a stop-gap.

            I wonder if looking at Olding at 10 is also prompted by Ulster’s embarrassment at riches at centre? There is Olding, L Marshall, Cave, Farrell, Wallace (when he comes back from injury), and rumblings about Payne playing there as well.

          • Peat

             /  September 4, 2013

            ORiordan nails it for me – Cave does look vulnerable, despite me being a big fan of his – but who gets that spot? Olding could. Olding could go to 12 and push Marshall out. Or Farrell could. Or Payne could move to 13. Or Old King Cave might end up triumphant after all. Heck, Michael Allen is a very good centre too. It’s a complete logjam to say the least – we can certainly spare Olding for a look at 10 if it comes to it.

            In a way, thank gods for injuries, as there’s no way we’d keep them all happy otherwise…

  6. Yossarian

     /  September 5, 2013

    I Think Cave is what has held back Ulster.Top class club man,found wanting at highest level(Business end H-Cup and International). There are some seriously talented 10′s in Jackson and Olding and nice 12′s in Marshall/Olding/farrell embarrassment of riches that Leinster and Munster both envy.
    As to the point of the article i think Penny came out saying Keatley was his starting 10 as a vote of confidence for him and to take pressure off JJ. JJ has the higher ceiling i would think. Keatley was poor in Georgia(sulking or just not good enough) a tournament a player of his supposed stature he should have dominated. Game time improved him hugely at Connacht but don’t think he will be anything more than a decent Rabo player. we are in a “wait and see” situation with JJ but the feeling is he will have stepped up by November and be taking over the H-Cup duties by rounds 3/4 of H-Cup.

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