In his first interview since ending his eight-year stay with Munster, Ian Keatley tells The42 why he had to make the difficult decision to leave Limerick.

Swings and roundabouts, the highs and lows, the peaks and troughs. Nobody needs to tell Ian Keatley about them. His career chart contains more than most. The dark days were unimaginably dark. People — Munster fans — used to come up to him after matches and ask if he had ever practised kicking. They’d tweet him, too. It was relentless.

And then there was December 2015, when Keatley endured the hardest, loneliest walk of all as his exit from Thomond Park was met by a chorus of boos from a small section of the ground. Voicing frustrations at the team is one thing, but this was on another level. A deeply personal level. It would be the end of most players, most careers. Imagine, that feeling. That hurt. That hopelessness. 

Keatley’s journey through the good and bad during eight years at Munster has been well documented. 1,247 points in 180 appearances in red, he is second on the province’s all-time top points list and is third on the list of the Pro14′s all-time points scorers with 1,428. There was far more good than bad. Yet, for one reason or another, some felt the need to voice their displeasure. Their disapproval. The abuse affected him — on and off the pitch — more than many knew, those so-called supporters completely oblivious to the pain their words and actions were causing. 

But for all the lonely car journeys with only his thoughts for company, for all the sleepless nights, for all the tears and for all the agony it caused Keatley’s close family and friends, the out-half has used it all — the good and the bad — to shape his perspective on rugby and on life. All for the better.

Last month, he packed up his stuff and vacated the Munster locker he had made his own for the last eight years for the last time. No regrets, no bitterness. Just a career’s worth of memories, of happy memories. He left Limerick with far more than he arrived with back in 2011. 

“I talked to Lisa [his partner] about leaving and you make your decision but when it’s announced and you’re getting the well-wishes, it really hits home,” Keatley tells The42.

“I’m not going to play for Munster ever again. You face that reality. There were a few tears leaving. I’ve given a quarter of my life to Munster.

“Before I arrived there, I didn’t have a partner or a kid and now I have a family leaving there. Although it’s sad leaving, I’m taking so much with me and it has impacted my life so much. It has made me a better person.”

Rewind the clock 12 months and Keatley’s revival was turning out to be one of the stories of the season. Not only had he regained the Munster number 10 jersey, but he was playing with a renewed confidence and swagger. Like the player he has always been. 

Ian Keatley kicks the winning conversion

There must have been few sweeter moments than December 2017 when, two years after he was greeted by ironic cheers as he made his way off against Leicester Tigers, Keatley produced an outstanding display of class and character against the same opposition to guide Munster to a big European win. A week later, he steered the province to another victory at Welford Road.

Deep in the bowels of that iconic English rugby citadel, it was incredibly gratifying to hear a player who had been through the mill speak receive a hero’s welcome from the travelling Munster support. To respond and come back from all of that must have taken huge mental strength, and was a true measure of Keatley as a man and rugby player. 

“There has been a bit of media coverage about how the fans treated me that time but it is literally the 1%,” he continues. “I cannot speak highly of the other 99% of the people I’ve encountered in Munster and talking to them on the street, they are so genuinely friendly and so nice to me and my family.”

Despite establishing himself as Johann van Graan’s first-choice out-half last season as Munster fell at the semi-final hurdle in both the Pro14 and Champions Cup, Keatley’s fortunes were to change dramatically over the course of the summer. From despair to redemption and back again. 

The arrival of Joey Carbery from Leinster saw him drop down the pecking order and it became clear quite quickly that Keatley was not going to see as much game-time this term than his 24 appearances in red during the 2017/18 campaign.

Although training as hard as ever and enjoying the benefits of a more relaxed and confident approach, allowing him to rebound from errors or missed kicks if they happened, Keatley failed to start a game for Munster this season and was confined to just four appearances off the bench. He was out of Van Graan’s plans and behind Carbery, JJ Hanrahan, Bill Johnston and the fit-again Tyler Bleyendaal in the out-half department. 

“Yeah, extremely frustrating,” he admits. “Coming from last season where I started 17 games and played two Autumn internationals for Ireland. 

“To just four sub appearances, mentally it was very tough. You’re there trying to figure out what you’ve done wrong and it was tough. The last game I started for Munster was that semi-final [defeat to Racing] in France and obviously, it didn’t go the best that day for me or the team.

“For that to be my last start, all you want to do is get back out on the pitch and prove you still have it. I even felt I did that with a few of my appearances off the bench. You’re training hard and when you’re not getting chances, you can see what’s going to happen and that’s why I had to take a bit of control.”

As hard as that decision was, Keatley faced up to the reality of having to leave Munster to further his career. There were tears and conversations with his partner Lisa before they both agreed that moving on and seeking a new challenge was the best, and only, option.

Ian Keatley

Out of contract at Munster this summer, Keatley is honest enough to know the likelihood of having his terms extended by the province were extremely slim and he had to take control of the situation, particularly now that he has a young family to provide for.

While initially signing a deal to join Italian club Benetton next season, Keatley was then handed the opportunity to seek game-time at London Irish on a short-term deal until the end of the current campaign. His exit from Munster was brought forward a couple of months and, suddenly, that was it. The end.

“Rugby players are just like anyone else. We have our own families to look after, we have bills to pay, a lot of us have mortgages to pay. Sometimes people can forget we’re only trying to make a living and we know we only have 10 years.

“You have to look after yourself a bit and the decision to leave Munster, I just saw an opportunity to get back out there and keep doing what I love. Because I don’t know what was going to happen with Munster, the way it was looking, I didn’t start one game this season.

“Common sense comes into it, you’re probably not going to be offered a contract or if you are, it might be just a one year deal with less money. You have to weigh up these things and that’s what I did.

“I looked at Treviso and a few of their games, even talking to their head coach [Kieran Crowley] and seeing the players they have. It turned out to be a no-brainer in terms of my own career, making sure my own family are looked after and that Dad has a job and can provide for the family.At the end of the day, obviously I love rugby, but I had to make sure my family are supported. That’s my number one priority.

The reaction to Keatley’s departure reflected his popularity among the majority of the Munster support base as well as the wider Irish rugby community, and the impact he had made at the club having arrived from Connacht via Leinster and Belvedere College. 

“It was hard,” he continues. “But I knew it was the right move. I had to look at the bigger picture and then the reaction was overwhelming. I was blown away, so touched by the messages. 

“But that’s what kind of annoyed me as well. Maybe I had one or two bad games and sometimes I felt people remembered the bad games I played, rather than the good games I played. The reaction I got when I was leaving kind of showed me people did appreciate me when I was there and sometimes you can lose sight of that when you’re in the bubble and it’s all based on winning trophies.

“That’s the frustrating part of it. We always tend to focus on the negatives when they’re only actually a small percent of it. There are so many good things and that’s what I want to take from leaving Munster.

Ian Keatley celebrates after the game 17/12/2017

“One or two games didn’t go the way I want, yes, but 95% of the time I was at Munster, I couldn’t have been happier. And that’s what I’m taking from it because there are so many bad things you can give out about. The good stuff always outweighs the bad stuff.”

The birth of Keatley’s first child, Beth, in September 2017 changed his outlook and relationship with rugby. As did the untimely passing of Anthony Foley and the profound sense of loss felt by all at Munster Rugby at the time. A softened attitude, a sense of perspective, and at 31, experience had taught him how to deal with everything — both the good and bad — that was thrown at him. 

And so, even with having to leave his home and the club he loves, Keatley sees the good in the situation. Moving to London and then Treviso presents new, exciting opportunities for him and his family, both on and off the rugby pitch. 

Lisa and Beth have remained in Limerick for the time being and the Keatleys will then make the move over to Italy as a family later this year, but for now the seven-time capped Ireland international is focused on giving his all for London Irish.

He made a try-scoring debut for the English club a fortnight ago but unfortunately his afternoon was cut short when sustaining a nasty bang to the head, but Keatley has recovered to start for Irish against London Scottish at the Madejski Stadium this afternoon.

“I needed to play games,” he says. “I wanted to be prepared going over to Benetton and after weighing up the pros and cons, myself and Lisa agreed it was a good move. It is difficult because I’ve left my family for a month now. They have been over [to London] and I’m making an effort to get home to see them too but it’ll be a tough three months in that sense. 

“In fairness to Declan Kidney, he has helped me a lot with getting time off to get home without missing training and it’s great having Lisa and Beth visit London as there is so much to do here.”

For now, Keatley’s sole focus is on helping his new club consolidate their position at the top of the Championship and get across the line to earn promotion back to the Premiership at the first time of asking. Former Leinster centre Brendan Macken also starts for the Exiles today while there are strong Irish links through director of rugby Kidney and head coach Les Kiss. 

“I’m completely out of my comfort zone as all I’ve known is the Irish system but it exactly what my career needed,” Keatley says ahead of today’s Championship clash. “I may only be here for three months but I want to make an impact, to make an impression.”

Andrew Conway and Ian Keatley celebrate after the game

Attention will then turn to a new chapter in Italy. Benetton are making huge strides under Kiwi Crowley and Keatley has been impressed by the club’s progress, while hearing good things from his London Irish team-mate, Luke McClean who has had two separate stints with Treviso. 

Keatley is under no illusions that he will arrive there and walk into the team given Tommaso Allan and Ian McKinley are already in competition for the 10 jersey, but he is relishing the challenge and the potential of a completely fresh start.

He adds: “I wrote down the pros and cons of moving to Benetton after the option came up. The pros far outweighed the cons and as hard as it was to make that decision to actually leave Munster, it turned out to be a no-brainer really.

“It’s an exciting time for Italian rugby and I can’t wait for the challenge. I’m actually taking Italian lessons at the moment which is fun. That’s all part of it. A new life for my family and it’s pretty exciting.”

We can’t finish up without looking back on eight years at Munster and reflecting on some of the standout memories, as hard as that will be for a player who was such an integral part of the province for so long. 

There were too many highlights to go through here, but some remain more vivid in the mind than others. See Keatley’s match-winning drop-goal against Sale Sharks back in 2014, undoubtedly one of his best days in Munster red. Or simply those big European occasions at fortress Thomond. 

“I’ve never felt that rush of excitement before,” he smiles, looking back on a whirlwind experience.But as a team, winning a European match at Thomond Park. Jesus, it was just incredible. I know now it will be very hard to match that feeling ever again, when you have 26,000 people roaring at you. I’ll always cherish that and remember those days. They were special. 

“I had a few lows at Munster but, jeez, definitely the positives completely outweigh them. 95% of my time at Munster was very special and, do you know what? I wouldn’t change one thing about the whole experience as it has made me a better person.”

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