GROWING UP IN Ballynanty in Limerick, a stone’s throw from Thomond Park, rugby was at the centre of Ed O’Keeffe’s world from the start.
O’Keeffe couldn’t help but smile when he recently read Moyross man Keith Earls recounting how he would jump the back wall of Munster’s home ground as a kid.
“I was just thinking, ‘That was me as well,” says O’Keeffe.
“Keith would have been a massive inspiration coming from a similar area to me and living around the corner, just watching how he pushed on and how good a person he is, it’s great for all the young lads in the area.”
O’Keeffe playing for Munster U20s against Leinster in 2014, tackled by Nick Timoney. Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO
Inspired by Earls, O’Keeffe has forged his own path in rugby, starting with Thomond RFC, moving through St Nessan’s Community College into St Munchin’s, earning caps in Munster’s underage system, then via Young Munster in the AIL into the Connacht academy.
A stint in New Zealand followed before O’Keeffe spent last season playing for Italian club Viadana.
Now, he finds himself in Ireland’s rugby league squad ahead of the kick off the Rugby League European Championship this afternoon with a home clash against Scotland at Morton Stadium in Santry [KO 2pm, streamed on YouTube].
O’Keeffe jokes that “it’s a bit of a career change” but the 13-player code is not completely new to him.
The 23-year-old recalls his family’s next-door neighbour in Ballynanty being an avid league fan and joining him to watch Wigan and Leeds tearing it up in the Super League.
O’Keeffe’s coach at Galwegians, his club side during his time with Connacht, was Matt Brown, “a big rugby league advocate.”
Brown sent O’Keeffe’s clips around to Super League clubs after he finished with Connacht and there was some interest, but O’Keeffe eventually decided to take up the offer in Viadana and stay in rugby union.
However, when O’Keeffe returned to Ireland after the Italian season, he got involved in the summer domestic league programme, initially hoping to stay fit and match-sharp before realising he enjoyed the other code.
O’Keeffe in St Munchin’s colours in 2013. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
He also had a stint with Leigh Centurions in the Championship, just below Super League, as he got to grips with the different demands in league.
“I always thought, ‘Wow, it’s so quick’ but until you actually play it, you don’t realise how quick it actually is and how fit you have to be for it,” says O’Keeffe.
“Compared to union, as a winger, it’s a bit more basic. You don’t have as much tactical kicking. On phase four or five, then you can start dropping but when you’re playing union, teams can kick at any time. So union has more tactics involved in it.
“But the speed work and stepping a defender one-on-one is your bread and butter in league. There’s a massive emphasis on pure speed work, whereas when I was younger in union there was a massive emphasis on putting on size and weight.”
O’Keeffe is far from the first union player to move into league in Ireland and the current squad includes several others who have switched codes, while Connacht fans will recognise Api Pewhairangi – now back in league with the London Broncos.
Limerick man O’Keeffe was well-suited to rugby from the off, starting with Thomond and St. Nessan’s before he took a punt by moving to St. Munchin’s, where he ended up playing three years of Senior Cup rugby.
Capped by Munster at U18, U19 and U20 levels, O’Keeffe debuted for club side Young Munster fresh out of school and straight in at the deep end.
“My first game was out in Clontarf and you had Mick McGrath running down your channel; it’s not too pleasant as an 18-year-old kid! I think I just jumped on his back and tried to bring him down.”