Former Munster and Ireland outhalf Ronan O’Gara has backed Ian Keatley to understudy Johnny Sexton as outhalf in Ireland’s November internationals, saying Keatley’s game time at number ten puts him ahead of Leinster’s Ian Madigan.

With Sexton the incumbent, attention turns to who will be Ireland’s second-choice outhalf. Madigan has played most of his rugby at 12 this season, combining effectively with Jimmy Gopperth but not getting hold of the number 10 jersey.

Keatley has put in a number of impressive performances for Munster despite ongoing questions over his kicking, and produced a match-winning, last-minute drop-goal against Sale in the Champions Cup.

Speaking to RTÉ Sport about who will step in were Sexton to be injured or unavailable, O’Gara identified as a concern the fact that Madigan was not getting game time as an outhalf.

“From Ian Keatley’s point of view, he’s the fella that’s playing there ... it’s very difficult to go [from] playing Pro12 level at 12 to playing number 10 in a Test match. It’s just too big a step up. It’s very, very difficult.

“It’s not up one level, I think the [move from ] Pro12 to playing the Boks is up three levels, especially if you’re the quarterback. The one person doing that [playing outhalf] is Ian Keatley.”

"It’s very difficult to go [from] playing Pro12 level at 12 to playing number 10 in a Test match. It’s just too big a step up" - Ronan O'Gara

O’Gara stressed that Madigan’s ability was not in question but said he would need to gain experience and confidence that could come only from playing as outhalf to see out a game such as the one against South Africa.

“There’s no doubt Madigan has the ability, but from his point of view, how does he gain confidence?” he asked.

“He gains confidence and experience playing for Leinster week in week out, and putting those performances in the bank. And [then] when the crisis and the pressure comes on he can ... lean on that when hopefully it’s a one-score game after 60 minutes against the Boks. That’s what gives him belief to close out the game.

“But if you’re going, playing from 12 at Leinster into the hot-seat, I think it’s asking an awful lot of a really, really talented and crucial player.”

Looking at the wider picture for Ireland, O’Gara was optimistic that Joe Schmidt and his side would not be too adversely affected by a remarkable run of injuries. He said that there was still fierce competition for places and that the loss of players such as Leinster duo Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien opened the door for other players to shine.

“It is and it isn’t,” O’Gara said, when it was suggested that Ireland’s extensive injury list was a real challenge for the Ireland’s coaching staff. “Obviously the key injuries would be Healy and O’Brien, and Rob Kearney; where is [Gordon D’Arcy], what is his injury status? I wouldn’t be too sure.

“I think everywhere else you’re nearly looking at first-choice players [still being available], because I think there is still great choice in the backs, and obviously Cian Healy would be missed from any team, Sean O’Brien will be missed, but other than that I think it’s a great opportunity.

“This is when the provincial that step up to international level excel. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised about the standard Ireland will achieve over the next few weeks.”