‘Keith Earls would’ve been a massive inspiration coming from a similar area to me’

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.”

He joined Connacht’s academy in 2015 and spent two seasons with the province, playing in the British and Irish Cup but never getting an opportunity to debut at senior level.

O’Keeffe spent two seasons with Connacht. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Looking back you always think you might have deserved a better chance but it is what it is,” says O’Keeffe.

“You’ve got to take the good with the bad. It was still a really, really good experience. Mossy Lawlor was my coach, who I would have known from back home in Limerick, and Nigel Carolan was great to me on a personal level. It was all positive really.”

He joined Rory Parata, Cian Romaine and Ciaran Gaffney in heading to New Zealand after his time in Connacht ended, pitching up in the farming area of Oamaru on the South Island, “out in the sticks but with great people.”

Heading for New Zealand meant leaving behind the Ireland Sevens squad, which he had been part of, but O’Keeffe wanted to get away and experience something different.

“I was working on a farm from 7am to 7pm every day there, going directly to training,” he says of his time there.

“It was tough but it was a different side so I think I’ll appreciate it even more if a contract does come on the table. You appreciate what people do outside rugby day to day.”

Next on the journey was his season in Italy with Viadana, where O’Keeffe played 17 or 18 first-team games and scored some excellent tries, as well as enjoying the food and lifestyle.

But now back in Ireland, league is his focus and he hopes to help Ireland to achieve World Cup qualification over the next three weeks against Scotland, France and Wales.

The top two nations in the European Championship will qualify for the 2021 World Cup in England, while the bottom two go into next year’s European qualifying tournament.

O’Keeffe celebrates after a Jordan Conroy try. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

If the experience is to lead onto a professional opportunity in England, O’Keeffe will do what he’s done many times before – grab it with both hands.

“As a kid growing up, the dream is to play for one of the provinces but when somebody says to you that you have a chance to represent your country, no matter what level it is, the chance to pull on that green jersey is something you don’t think twice about doing.

“To stand there and sing the national anthem, that will be a great occasion for my family too.

“A professional contract, no matter what code it’s in, is so hard to come by. Everyone is looking for the same thing and if it’s in league, why not pursue it? Rugby is a short career and I don’t want to be looking back in 10 years’ time thinking, ‘what if?’

“I don’t want to have any regrets.”

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