Ian Keatley’s RBS 6 Nations debut at 27 has not come too late for the Munster fly-half to carve a lasting Test career, insists Joe Schmidt.
Ireland boss Schmidt conceded Keatley was paired alongside Conor Murray in the half-backs for Saturday’s clash against Italy in part because of the duo’s Munster partnership.
But Ireland’s Kiwi head coach is adamant Test rugby has not yet passed Keatley by, despite the three-cap out-half spending the brunt of his career sat behind first Ronan O’Gara and now Johnny Sexton.
Racing Metro fly-half Sexton sits out Saturday’s Six Nations opener in Rome as he completes an enforced 12-week concussion lay-off, while Ulster’s Paddy Jackson is recuperating from elbow surgery.
Ian Madigan’s infrequency at 10 this term with Leinster, who employ him at inside centre, leaves the versatile playmaker on Ireland’s bench for the Stadio Olimpico clash.
“You could go back to Johnny Sexton,” said Schmidt, defending Keatley’s future Test promise.
“For a long time, Johnny didn’t get to start for Leinster, let alone Ireland.
“He sat behind Felipe Contepomi at Leinster, he sat behind Ronan O’Gara with Ireland: but he worked incredibly hard on his game and we’ve benefited from it, as an Irish squad.
“Certainly, Leinster benefited from it when he came of age there.
“Ian Keatley has matured. It’s a difficult task, being a 10 at a high European, or Test level, because you’ve got to be controlling the game and making decisions on the fly.
“There is a degree of confidence, and competence, from gaining that experience and doing exactly that.”
Ireland will start their Six Nations title defence in Rome without battle-hardened number eight Jamie Heaslip.
The British and Irish Lions loose forward actually made a full recovery from his shoulder problem on Thursday, but that was deemed too late for the Italy clash by Schmidt.
Instead Leinster’s back-rower Jordi Murphy fills the number eight berth, with fit-again Sean O’Brien starting his first Test since November 2013 – just eight days after ending his five-month lay-off for the Ireland Wolfhounds.
Schmidt backed Keatley to hold his goal-kicking nerve in Rome, tipping the Munster pivot to continue his recent resurgence in provincial form.
“Part of it is his combination with Conor Murray, they play together every week and their understanding is very good,” said Schmidt.
“Ian Keatley has had that rhythm of playing 10 on a regular basis, where Ian Madigan hasn’t.
“It’s a vote of confidence in Ian Keatley, he’s finished games off well and that’s given confidence he can do the same for us.
“His kicking percentages since Christmas are very, very strong.
“Based on that we’d have confidence he can kick well.
“I think you’ve got to be able to give confidence or put confidence in players who are delivering – and in recent times he’s delivered.”