He ain’t no Rog

Here are two incontrovertible facts about Ian Keatley:

  • He isn’t Ronan O’Gara
  • He isn’t JJ Hanrahan

That is, he isn’t a multiple Heineken Cup-winning mental strength machine, nor is he is greenhorn with loads of potential but virtually no professional experience. What he is is an experienced Pro12 outhalf who is embarking on his first season as a starter with an elite (disclaimer: not elite in McCafferty’s dictionary i.e. Leeds or Worcester, but elite in the real world) team – he has just six Heineken Cup starts and is well behind Sexton, Jackson and Madigan at international level.

And he is stuck in a pretty unenviable situation – he is taking over the jersey of not just a good outhalf, but the best outhalf in Munster history, the winner of the best player in HEC history, do-no-wrong Ligind St Ronan of Cork. Basically, he just isn’t going to cut the mustard in the eyes of some casual fans no matter what he does. Plus he went to loike Belvo loike roysh. To make matters worse, his undertstudy is the angelic and exciting local hero, 21 year old JRWC player of the year nominee JJ Hanrahan. At the slightest sign of Keatley not-being-Rog, the excitable locals are calling for Hanrahan to be brought in. It’s basically a no-win situation.

It’s also typical of Irish rugby, where players from provincial academies get an easier ride from the public than nomadic players who have travelled from one province to another.  There’s a sense that players who migrate between provinces lack a spiritual home , and rarely have a street team in the media who will go to bat for them in the same way as the latset home-grown ‘superstar’ gets instantly championed by an excitable press corps and fanbase only dying to uncover the Next Big Thing.  Eoin Reddan is a classic example; he only had to win two Heineken Cups to win over sceptical Leinster fans.  There are exceptions though, and when Mike Ross’ skills became belatedly fashionable there was almost a sense of delerium that this suddenly invaluable player had been a mere afterthought in his Munster days.

Fifteen months ago, when Rob Penney came in, Keatley hit the ground running at Munster, and looked like he suited Penney’s gameplan. We thought that the new coach, given O’Gara was coming to the end of the line, might identify Keatley as his man and progressively bring him into the lineup. As it happened, O’Gara was first choice by a distance – Keatley getting one HEC start, and only because Radge got himself suspended for some uncharacteristic trickery with a second row. O’Gara then finished off his career with a spectacular rolling-back-the-years performance in the HEC semi-final, reminding everybody why they loved him so much in the first place after a disastrous Six Nations.  Keatley had to serve his time before being given the big gig.

This season, Keatley has been pretty average – he hasn’t been spectacularly awful, nor has he scaled the heights Rog did. Pretty much his usual level, then. He does everything to a reasonable standard, but isn’t a spectacular tactical kicker, doesn’t exhibit brilliant gainline handling and doesn’t lord it over a game. He also has problems with consistency, veering from poor to excellent and back again in jig time.  In recent weeks, he has given two really poor performances – in Perpignan and Ulster – and was under big pressure coming into the Gloucester match. It seemed that JJ was very, very close to getting selected.  Had the match been at home, who knows?

In the event he had his best game for Munster, and was singled out for praise by Rob Penney.  He did pretty much everything asked of him – his place kicking was good, his tactical kicking very good, and he looked much superior to the vaunted Freddy Burns, who increasingly looks like the new Ryan Lamb and not the new Jonny Wilkinson. It was a creditable riposte to the expectations he was under. It was just how you want your fly-half to play in a tricky away match; continually pinning the home side in their own half of the pitch and asking the question of whether they have the smarts to get out of it.  Sure enough, Gloucester didn’t have the answers.  Job done.

And yet – he isn’t Ronan O’Gara. One of his best performances in the Munster shirt and there has been plenty of talk of ill-considered grubber kicks.  The tactic came off pretty well for him, but he went to the well once too often.

With a dead rubber coming up against Embra, there is a school of thought that says Munster have little to lose playing JJ – Munster could probably win with Dave Kilcoyne at outhalf, and it gets JJ’s first HEC start out of the way. The not wholly unreasonable thinking behind it is that Keatley is not a Heineken Cup-winning fly-half and if Munster get to the pointy end of the tournament, the only way to have a chance of beating the really good teams will be to gamble on Hanrahan’s more mercurial talents.  Munster don’t want to find themselves in the situation Ulster did, where PJ made his HEC debut in a semi-final, after a series of catastrophic showings from iHumph left head coach Brian McLoughlin with little option.  So Keatley, in his sixth HEC start, plays as well as he ever has in red, and there is still a question mark over his place in the team? Shows how much of a hiding to nothing he is on.

So in effect it’s a stay of execution for Keatley.  It still feels like he’s a ‘holding place’ solution rather than a long-term one; keeping the jersey warm until the new kid is considered ready.  With every match-saving cameo from JJ Hanrahan’s, the breath on his neck getting hotter.  But even though Rob Penney has a pretty adventurous gameplan, he is a relatively conservative selector – we can’t see him making a change after Keatley answered his critics in such fashion. The Hanrahan era might be the future, but Keatley is a man still learning his trade at this level as well and he isn’t going to give up the shirt that easily.

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27 Comments

  1. I would be one of those Munster rednecks who would have thought, prior to Saturday, that Penney would have selected JJ. But fair fecks to him for sticking with Keatley who repaid his faith in spades. Unfortunately not sure what that will count for as the business end of the competition approaches.

  2. Keatley’s one unloved fella… By the standards of out halves generally, he’s a (potentially very) good player, certainly at the level below internationals. He’s getting a bit of a battering because Ireland currently has three better tens, two of whom are younger than him, plus there’s another fella with a touch of genius breathing down his neck at his club side – and all just months after he finally escaped the shadow of the future loudest ghost haunting Thomond Park.

    If you look at the out halves currently playing at top-level clubs across Europe, he fares pretty well in comparison, even if he’s likely to end up at Connacht or abroad in the next few years. (And he was better than Rog for most of last season, perhaps easily forgotten).

    • On your last point: clearly true. Since the ‘Quins and Clermont performances left us with golden memories, people seem to forgotten that ROG didn’t really earn his selection in either match. Keatley was by far the better player last year. Unfortunately Keatley last year was also better than Keatley this year has been. He seemed more aggressive, more willing to receive the ball close to the gainline, and he ran better as a result. This year he seems to be trying to play a more ROG-like game, with mixed results. It worked well against Gloucester, but I wonder is it hampering the movement of the rest of the backline?

  3. Say what you want about Keatley, but he and Hanrahan give Munster a hell of a lot more depth at 10 than Ulster have. The competition seems to have brought out the best in both players (although also the worst, both have been guilty of some fairly abject performances), so it can only get better for Munster.

    • Better depth: maybe, maybe not. Ulster are unique among the provinces because their 9 doubles up as a 10. If Paddy Jackson got injured, Pienaar is their cover, with Marshall coming in at scrum-half. Not too shabby.

      • Yeah, I see your point, but at the same time though Pienaar (and Ulster) play noticeably worse whenever either Pienaar or Jackson aren’t at 9/10. One criticism I’d have of Anscombe/Humph over the last season or two would be that there (a) hasn’t been any competition at 10 since iHumph left, and (b) we rely too heavily on Pienaar.

        • I do agree that Ulster don’t look as good without Pienaar or Jackson. But then they’re both awfully good players. I suppose it comes down to the question of would you take one outstanding fly-half or two pretty good, roughly evenly matched ones? As a Leinster fan I have to confess I’d take Sexton back if it meant losing both Madigan and Gopperth, but that’s just me.

          Pienaar is a world-class game manager at scrum half, a very different 9 to those at the other provinces. I don’t think it’s unreasonable that Ulster lean on him heavily. The chap is outstanding.

          I actually think Anscombe has managed the 10 situation pretty well. He’s gradually transferred more responsibility to Jackson over time. We’ve reached the point where Jackson has become a really assured playmaker. I’m not sure he’d benefit from real competition. He looks like a confidence player in the mould of Sexton, who plays better when he knows he can get on with his job without fear of losig his shirt. All that said, if Stuart Olding hadn’t got injured we could be talking very differently.

          Oh, and don’t forget Paddy Wallace, who apparently is still around…

    • Keith

       /  January 13, 2014

      Not if you count Ruan as back up 10

      • Does pienaar want to be back up 10? Even if he’s willing shifting him to 10 only shifts the problem of depth to 9, Marshall is not a heineken cup starter.

        • I don’t think it’s a question of who wants to do what. When you’ve players injured you have to make do and mend with the next best solution available. For Ulster if Jackson was injured (he has a pretty good injury record, so it’s not been a big deal yet) they’d play Marshall and Pienaar. They forewent a 10 on the bench against Montpellier by the way, so it’s pretty obvious this is their back-up.

  4. Munster would have a home semi sown up already if JJ hadn’t been brought on at outhalf against Embra in round one. That day he wasn’t the messiah, he was etc. and so on. How quickly people forget.

    • JJ had a bout of the dropsies that day and looked a bit panicked. I’m not sure it’s fair to lay the blame at his feet though. The whole team sleepwalked into that match and several seniir players were far more culpable for the lack of intensity than the rookie reserve fly-half.

    • Bueller

       /  January 13, 2014

      Blaming JJ for Edinburgh is equally as ridiculous as attributing the Perpignan win to him. Players are allowed to make mistakes, its up to the team to win…especially against a team as poor as Edinburgh.

  5. ruckinhell

     /  January 13, 2014

    If this was a one off game I would have selected Hanrahan but it wasn’t and I think Keatley’s confidence would have been destroyed if he hadn’t been selected. Overall he performed well on Saturday and had a good day with the boot. He was forcing things a bit (hence all the grubbers) but built his confidence back up by the end of the match and will surely be happy with the run out. Penney was shrewd in his selection policy, I think he made the right call with an eye on the season in general and leaving Keatley to finish off the match at ten and bringing Hanrahan on for Earls will give him an extra little boost of confidence.

    That being said, Cup rugby is about turning pressure into points and if Keatley doesn’t begin to kick with some consistency then Hanrahan has to start come the business end of the season. He may still be a kid but with his kicking stats in the 90% range you can’t argue with his precision from the boot.

  6. finners

     /  January 13, 2014

    This debate was had on second captains last week and it followed more or less the same line as this peace Neil Francis clams Munster supports are calling for the Leinster man to get the chop for one of there own. And then says I’d pick jj too
    . So no matter what Munster do they can’t win with the media.

  7. While I agree with almost every point in this piece, it seems to me that the overall tone of the article is that Munster fans are being unreasonable having their doubts about Keatley. This seems unfair, as the week before the Gloucester match, Keatley had one of the worst games I’ve ever seen from a professional out-half. Obviously that’s the smallest sample size you could have, and it certainly doesn’t negate the array of competent performances he has put in for Munster, but it’s only natural, and not necessarily motivated by any provincial attachment to JJ, that people would be worried. I thought Hanrahan should play simply because you can’t pretend it’s a genuine competition between the two if a performance like the one against Ulster didn’t get Keatley dropped. At the same time, I wasn’t TOO concerned, just because it seemed unlikely Keatley would ever play that badly again. Furthermore, obviously, Gloucester are no Ulster, and Keatley was unlikely to be pressured the way he was against Ulster. All in all, I don’t think Keatley deserved to start on form, but he played very well in the end. It seems that Penney doesn’t really punish a poor one-off game, which is fair enough, and that Hanrahan will have to out-perform Keatley’s regular form, rather than his worst days, which is also fair enough.

    • I don’t think it’s so much that it’s unreasonable having doubts about Keatley; I think everyone has their doubts about him to some extent, because let’s face it, he’s not a top-tier player. But there is a bit of a rush on among the Munster faithful to get JJ into the team and annoint him the next superstar of Irish rugby, and it puts Keatley in a bit of a thankless position.

      • Ah yeah, I’d definitely be on your side there. I appreciate Keatley, he’s an all-rounder who isn’t amazing at any one thing but who can basically do everything. When he kicks well, he tends to kick very well, but he also misses some very basic kicks at times. It’s interesting actually, while ROG was rubbish at two things (running and tackling), he was outstanding at passing and kicking, so we overlooked his deficits and emphasised his good points. Keatley isn’t great at anything, but he’s not bad at anything either. There’s no easy way to quantify this, but given that ROG’s weaknesses are reasonable areas of strength for Keatley, you could say they’re more similar in overall ability than some might think. The problem is, it was easier for the team to cover ROG’s faults by having a backrow cover him, and having powerful runners elsewhere in the team, than it is to make up for Keatley on days when he can’t kick a penalty or find touch.

        • The old speciualist vs. generalist is a bit of a hobby horse for us, and we’d go for the specialist every time – the player who is really outstanding in at least one facet of the game. It’s why we prefer the likes of Tom Croft to Tom Wood, and so forth. ROG was so good at the tactical management of games that he could make matches bend to his will – and as you could say, he had players around him (Wally!) to help mask his deficiencies.

          • Hmmm, I’m not sure if I completely agree, in that certain guys I would call generalists can be very useful (e.g. McFadden, whose work I know you enjoy), and certain guys can be awesome at one skill, but the lack of development of their other skills mean that they don’t quite command their place (e.g. Reddan’s rifle pass wouldn’t, for me, be enough to vault him past Murray because of Murray’s greater physicality, even though Murray might never play the game as fast as Reddan). But in the ROG/Keatley case yeah, I’d agree with you, you could work around ROG’s weaknesses and exploit his excellent aspects.

      • Another problem is, there was a lot of hype about Keatley as a youth, and people were waiting for him to put it together, but at this stage, this is probably who he is. A friend who went to Belvedere told me when Keatley moved to Munster that he had been pretty much at Sexton’s level as a school’s player. While it would be unreasonable to expect them both to have transformed into the best outhalf in Europe, it’s a shame from an Irish perspective that Keatley hasn’t really come anywhere close to Sexton’s level since then.

  8. WhisperingDeath

     /  January 14, 2014

    I first saw Hanrahan plaing full back in the U20 6 nations a few years ago — At that time Paddy J was captain at 10 which meant JJ had to play at 15. He loked very comfortable as a counter-attacker and won at least one MOM award. Obviously he is a more than competent 10 (where he played in the JWC that yr when PJ was ‘rested’ by Ulster…) but this leads me to my central point. Is there not room for his footballing elsewhere in the backline?

    The player JJ most reminds me of is a young BOD (U20 in particular) – does any see a flaw in my thinking? Would he not be a natural fit in this position? Does he lack something? Given that Laulala is leaving at the end of thtis season is this not a seamless interchange?

    I’d love if somone could point out why this mightn’t work as I’ve been banging this drum for the past 2 years…

    • I’m not saying he wouldn’t have the ability, I don’t know, but generally when JJ has played centre it has been 12, rather than 13. I would say that one of the 13’s roles is often as defensive organiser, and while JJ is a fairly solid tackler, that’s not really where he’s making his money.

    • In fact, given he has a good bit of experience at 12, I think it would be reasonable to try to accommodate him there at times. Downey was good against Gloucester, but his form hasn’t always been great, or at least, Munster haven’t always used him in ways to maximise his skills. Since they don’t seem given to generating crash ball for him to run onto, it might be more beneficial to have a stepper like JJ there to create breaks himself.

  9. WhisperingDeath

     /  January 14, 2014

    Fair enough if you see the primary role of 13 as defender but from a creative perspective I would have suggested that (apart from 10) 13 is the key position in the backline.

    • That IS fair, but JJ seems to have no experience of ever playing there, from what I’ve seen and read. Given that it’s so key to the attack, it would be a bit risky to try him there. Not that Munster are getting great change out of Laulala at the moment or anything…

      • I don’t mean to dismiss your suggestion by any means, I think it could be interesting to see him there. I don’t see Penney trying it, because as WoC point out, he’s a fairly conservative selector, but JJ might well have the skills for it.

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