Ian Keatley had a shot at glory. The clock showed 79:47 as Conor Murray flung the ball towards the Munster fly-half, deep in the pocket, his side trailing 26-24 in the dying seconds.
With the new Champions Cup pools so intensively competitive and even tougher assignments ahead against Saracens and Clermont Auvernge, his side’s entire European campaign depended on him making the kick.
Yet along with the ball spiralling towards him like a bullet out of Murray’s hands was the Sale Sharks scrum-half Chris Cusiter. Some might have pulled the trigger then and risked disaster but in that split second as Cusiter must have appeared to him like a charging rhino, Keatley weighed his options, assessed the risk and backed his team-mates to retain the ball long enough to get him back into drop-goal -kicking position.
It was the sort of composure the team had displayed throughout those closing minutes at the AJ Bell Stadium on Saturday afternoon, having given themselves a mountain to climb as they trailed 23-7 at the interval.
Yet having kept their kept their heads to give themselves an unlikely shot at victory, Keatley and his team-mates showed they could wait and not be tired by waiting.
It took another 63 seconds for them to get their reward. It does not sound long but it represented an eternity for the Munster following of around 4,500 supporters and the outpouring of relief and joy as Keatley finally sent the ball between the posts made it well worth the wait.
“It was pretty nervy,” Keatley admitted. “My first attempt, Chris Cusiter chased me so I had to bounce it on but luckily the lads got me into another position and it went over, so it’s all down to them really.”
Others may have shunned the responsibility, stayed out of the pocket and prayed for a penalty to get their team the required points but like Ronan O’Gara before him, most notably against Northampton and Castres in back to back games three seasons ago, Keatley stood up to be counted and his head coach, Anthony Foley, recognised a career moment for his oft-criticised fly-half.
“He pulled it back when he saw the pressure was on him. He fed it to Andrew (Conway) who carried it back in,” Foley said. “We stayed composed, got numbers around the ball and worked another opportunity. That was pretty impressive out of the lads. It’s been done before. But until you do it yourself, I mean Ian might have seen Rog do that before, in this case it shows where he is in his learning and his appreciation of the game. He’s taken a big step forward in his career.”
Nor was it just that game-winning drop goal, for Keatley had kicked well all afternoon, not missing off the tee with a penalty and three conversions in a testing wind, the last of which was from the right touchline following Murray’s try in the corner.
That was a kick that had another try scorer, Andrew Conway, deeply impressed.
“Even if you look back at the conversion following Conor’s try; that came in off the post. That’s massive, that’s as good as the drop goal. The conditions in the corners were very difficult. He got a call when he was in the pocket, Sale were coming hard at him, but he still had options to give it and set up, remain calm.
“We knew that they were probably going to get on the board at some stage. Two of our exits didn’t go to plan when we had scored which is disappointing.
“We weren’t going to keep them scoreless....well we planned to but we (didn’t). ”The leaders stood up and all 15 of us remained calm and held onto the ball; that was the main thing.”
As was Keatley delivering the final blow to Sale, a fact that was not lost on his house-mate Conway.
“I’ll be cooking the dinner for the week,” the wing said.
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