Keatley’s errors in the fourth minute at Welford Road as a vengeance-seeking Leicester Tigers side hit the ground running saw the Munster fly-half spill the ball in contact under pressure from Ben Youngs and then fail to catch a stray Conor Murray pass, his fingertips shifting the ball forward.
It typified a nervous start for the visitors on a big Champions Cup night in one of the most feverish atmospheres of the weekend.
They had conceded a penalty in the second minute as Leicester had sought to lay down an early marker in response to their impotent performance the previous weekend in going down 33-10 at Thomond Park and here was the fly-half grinning at skipper Peter O’Mahony as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
It is difficult to imagine a similar scenario just a couple of seasons ago when Leicester were doing the double over a struggling Munster in the midst of one of their worst losing streaks that would see the province fail to qualify for the knockout stages in both the Champions Cup and PRO12.
On Sunday night in Leicester, the early shakiness was merely a blip. From 10-3 down after 13 minutes, both Munster and Keatley displayed resilience to bounce back for a famous 26-15 win, with the fly-half kicking 20 of his side’s points, with seven successful kicks from eight, as they opened up a four-point lead over Racing 92 at the top of Pool 4.
“There’s a bit of growth and a bit of maturity,” said Keatley. “I think a lot of lads are getting experience and we’ve got that nice blend now with lads who are experienced and young lads coming in and adding their X factor and their flair.
“We’re building nicely and we’ve put ourselves in a great position now in the group leading into this Christmas period. I think this period is the time you set up your season, you set yourself up for going for trophies. We did a really good job today and I think we just need to take confidence from that, I think we need to start believing in ourselves a bit more.”
For Keatley and his more senior team-mates, the victory was all the sweeter for having lost at Welford Road in the previous two seasons.
“I think you can see by our reaction at the end, it’s very satisfying,” said Keatley. “It was similar last year, we got a good win at home and came over here and lost narrowly so that was at the back of our mind but Johann (van Graan) was saying we were back to zero, we had to start again.
“We knew where we fell down last year and we worked on that this week. In fairness to Leicester they came at us hard and those first 20 minutes, Jesus, it was a frantic first 20 minutes, there were mistakes everywhere and then we got our composure. That was the difference there today, we kept our composure well at times and came away with the win.”
Munster can take huge credit for the way they regrouped after that nervy opening quarter. Keatley said: “Those conditions were tough, when you watch on TV and you look at it you’re like ‘what’s going on?’ but it was greasy out there and I remember, I was laughing to Pete, he said ‘its all right Keats, stay calm’ and I was like ‘it was actually a rubbish pass from Murray!’
“That’s what we were laughing about. In those games, it’s going to be high intensity and things aren’t going to go right. I don’t think I’ve ever played a perfect game, I don’t know anyone who has played a perfect game. Things are going to go wrong and it’s how you bounce back from it.”
Keatley still had some rebounding to do as the game progressed, his perfect copybook blotted when he missed what looked like one of his more straightforward attempts on goal when Munster badly needed to extend their lead from 19-16 in the 64th minute. Rather than losing confidence, the fly-half went on to successfully kick two penalties in the final 10 minutes and put the game beyond the Tigers.
“I just went back to my processes, I’ve got my routine. It is in the back of your mind that you’ve just missed one but there’s nothing you can do about that kick [when] it’s gone. You just have to concentrate on your next job and believe in what you’ve been doing. A player knows when he’s done a bad kick or done something wrong. All he wants to do is do well for the team and that’s what I wanted to do and make sure that we kept them at bay, going from three points to six points.
“That means they’ve to go for a try and push for more things and that last kick to bring [the lead] out to nine points was pretty satisfying.”