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Keatley Takes Confidence From Solid Six Nations Debut

Keatley Takes Confidence From Solid Six Nations Debut

It must have been pleasing for Eric Elwood and Dan McFarland, the 2007 Ireland Under-20 Grand Slam-winning coaches, to watch Ireland’s RBS 6 Nations win over Italy and see two of their former charges on the scoresheet.

Ian Keatley, who kicked 14 points on his RBS 6 Nations debut, and Tommy O’Donnell, who marked his first Championship start with a terrific individual try, both played in that Under-20 Grand Slam campaign eight years ago.

Out-half Keatley was one of the heroes of the hour back on St. Patrick’s Day 2007 when he scored a try, four conversions and a penalty in a 36-25 comeback victory over Italy in Benevento which clinched the title for Elwood’s young side.

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Joe Schmidt’s 38-man Championship squad includes seven players who saw action for the U-20s under Elwood – eight if you include Luke Fitzgerald who missed out on the tournament due to a neck injury.

2007 graduates Keatley, O’Donnell and Felix Jones all played against the Azzurri at the Stadio Olimpico, while late withdrawal Sean O’Brien, Darren Cave, Keith Earls and Cian Healy are also part of the current Irish panel.

Keatley is now Munster’s first choice out-half and on the back of his consistent provincial form, he was handed the Ireland number 10 jersey for Saturday’s opener in the absence of the sidelined Jonathan Sexton.

Reflecting on his fourth senior cap and first taste of Six Nations rugby, the Dubliner admitted: “I was pretty nervous at the start. I think that first (penalty) kick, I was just relieved it went over, but I’m just annoyed I had a bit of a shaky start, the first 10 minutes getting settled in.

“But then I felt I was getting into my rhythm and things went well from there. We knew they would put it up to us for the good majority of the match. We knew we would have to break them down and I think we did.”

There were obvious nerves in the build-up to the game for a player who, having won his first three caps over a five-year period, was especially eager to impress.

“In the lead up, I was just thinking to myself that I remembered watching Ireland winning in France last year, and I just remembered how much at the time I wanted to be there. I was actually watching it on my own at home, and I really wanted to be out there,” he said.

“So whenever I got nervous this week I just reminded myself that this is where you want to be, so suck it up really. Nerves can be a positive or a negative in a match, everyone gets nervous because it means so much to you.

“If you didn’t get nervous it probably wouldn’t mean much to you. So it’s just a few deep breaths with the kicking. Out of hand there’s a couple I rushed, but after the first 10 minutes once I got settled I felt comfortable out there.”

Keatley’s unerring place-kicking netted 14 points for Ireland – four penalties and a conversion – and head coach Schmidt said it was vital that those penalties went over in allowing the visitors some breathing space at 12-3 up.

“Obviously he kicked 100% from the tee and that allowed us to establish a bit of scoreboard pressure because I think without that, Italy were so in the game and up for the game it was going to be very difficult,” said Schmidt.

“In the game, a couple of times I think Ian was probably a little bit nervous and we’ll have a look at that, have a chat about it. What you can’t take away is that’s a small experience that he’s had that will help him acquit himself in the future.”

Sexton has been given the medical all-clear to return from his enforced 12-week lay-off. The 2014 Six Nations top points scorer is expected to resume the role of starting out-half against France next Saturday, but Keatley is determined to challenge him for the jersey this week and in the future.

“To be honest Johnny’s done so well over the last three or four years he deserves the number one (out-half) position. He’s one of the best out-halves in the world, so to be honest I presume that he’s going to be straight in there for the French match even though he hasn’t played in a while.

“He’s still been keeping fit and you need Johnny Sexton in your team. With the sub position I don’t know what’s going to happen there, I’m just delighted with the win today first and foremost.

“And I can still iron out things in my performance, I’m sure I’ll go through it with Joe and just look to improve. I can take a lot of confidence from this, but also I need to know where I want to get to.

“I know that Johnny is number one, but you can’t just accept that. If you’re looking to play second fiddle to someone the whole time you’re not going to improve personally.

“So that’s what I want to do, I want to keep improving and just keep challenging Johnny and hopefully play in more big games like this,” he added.