DONAL LENIHAN: Ian Keatley needs to be Munster’s special K

Ian Keatley needs to be more assured in his game management.

Three key issues to decide the Pro12 final
1. O’Connell’s last stand
2. Who deals better with conquering mental demons?
3. Half-backs will decide this one

Three key issues to decide the Pro12 final

1. O’Connell’s last stand

Emotion has always played a massive part in Munster rugby, dating back to the rare but wonderful days when New Zealand, Australia or South Africa rocked up to the Mardyke, Thomond or Musgrave Park.

The fear of being hammered coupled with the adrenalin rush of creating a bit of history always guaranteed Munster would perform above the sum of the teams parts.

The modern game is a bit more scientific and sophisticated but what separates Paul O’Connell from a lot of his modern counterparts is that he retains an attachment to the old world values of the province. That hits a special chord with those fortunate to share a team room with him.

Only a few short months ago, his Irish teammates came up just short when attempting to mark the occasion of his 100th Irish appearance against Wales.

His Munster counterparts will not want to contemplate the prospect of letting him down in what now looks certain to be his last appearance in a Munster shirt.

When the players look into each others eyes in those private moments before taking the field today, nothing needs to be said. There will be a recognition of a collective responsibility to mark this poignant occasion with a performance second to none.

Every player will want to lift his game to a level that will resonate with a man who always demanded the highest standard of himself when representing his native province.

All week, the Munster management played down the significance of what amounts to O’Connell’s last provincial stand, but you can be absolutely sure that when the players engage in that final huddle before leaving the dressing room, there will only be one thought front and centre in everyone’s mind. I would feel privileged to be afforded that chance today as players of O’Connell’s calibre are a rare breed.

He has done it all and is respected worldwide, yet he is one of our own. The question now is will that extra motivational spark be sufficient to see Munster take the spoils?

2. Who deals better with conquering mental demons?

One ventures to suggest that today’s game in Belfast presents a mental watershed for Glasgow Warriors in particular. They have been knocking on the Pro12 door for some time now but have never made it over the line.

For four seasons in a row, they’ve made the knockout stage but have never closed the deal even if there has been an incremental improvement each time. Beaten semi finalists in 2012 and 2013, they conquered that particular challenge last season, accounting for today’s opposition at Scotstoun by a single point, before falling at the final hurdle to Leinster at the RDS.

Today feels like a must win for them and that bring even further pressure. Their form has dipped of late after a long season that has seen the vast majority of their squad feature in all of Scotland’s international programme.

Yet when the need was greatest, they scored a magnificent try to put Ulster away last weekend. To finally bury the demons however, Glasgow know that they have to deliver silverware today.

Not that Munster are without a degree of mental baggage either. One could argue that in finally negotiating a safe passage through last week’s clash against Ospreys, Munster addressed an alarming slide in terms of mental fortitude by making the final, having lost nine of their last 10 semi-finals in domestic or European competition since losing to Leinster in Croke Park in 2009.

Even then, from a position of strength, they almost conspired to lose a game despite being the superior side for the vast majority of the 80 minutes.

They were architects of their own demise when handing the Ospreys two second-half tries coupled with missing six from eight kicks at goal. They will not escape with that level of profligacy today.

3. Half-backs will decide this one

Munster’s ever improving set piece holds the key to this contest. Rather surprisingly, in the absence of two key forwards in tight-head prop Wiehaan Herbst and second row Franco Van Der Merwe, Ulster shaded the battle at scrum and lineout time against Glasgow in their semi-final and that offers Munster a route to success.

To capitalise on that potential superiority up front, Ian Keatley needs to be far more assured and accurate in his game management.

There were contrasting fortunes for the respective out-halves in last weekend’s semis with both Keatley and Finn Russell attracting attention for varying reasons. After excelling at Pro12 level for well over a year now, Russell has yet to translate that form to the international arena with Scotland.

That said, after years of searching for a genuine No.10 to replace the mercurial Gregor Townsend, Russell represents the present and future for Scottish rugby.

When Glasgow needed something magical to bury the Ulster threat in Scotstoun, Russell was the provider-in-chief with a sumptuous pass off his left hand to put DTH Van Der Merwe over in the corner to level the scores. With just minutes remaining, his touch line conversion edged Glasgow over the line.

Leaving his issues with placed ball aside, Keatley’s tactical kicking was below the required standard against the Ospreys with his penchant for kicking long down the middle of the field achieving nothing, only the turnover of hard earned possession. That has to stop.

He showed when selected by Joe Schmidt ahead of Ian Madigan against Italy last February that he has the skill level and intellect to control matters at the highest level. Since then however, for some reason, he has allowed his standards to drop.

While Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray represent a massive loss to Munster today, the baton of senior partner at half-back has passed to Keatley. He has to take the pressure off Duncan Williams and direct operations.

It helps that Williams had a fine game when introduced after only 17 minutes last Saturday and that he has featured so often with Keatley this season.

For Munster to win, Keatley has to match the threat with ball in hand that created the opening try for Simon Zebo last weekend. He needs to back his pace and ability to play flat, attack the gain line and match that with a smarter kicking game.

With O’Connell driving the show up front, Williams and Keatley must steer Munster to a first trophy since 2011. Glasgow are not without their injury woes either with the fast developing Scottish international midfield pairing of Mark Bennett and Alex Dunbar also absent leaving the winning and losing of this final in Munster’s hands even if Glasgow start as slight favourites.

If Munster can cut out the silly errors that presented soft tries to both the Dragons and the Ospreys recently and the half-backs keep Munster on the front foot, then that four-year hiatus without a trophy should come to an end but it will be tight.


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