‘It’s as close as you’ll get in the US to the Munster or Leinster set-up’

JUST OVER TWO months ago, Mark O’Keeffe was on the verge of packing in the rugby dream and knuckling down to the reality of a 9 to 5 job in his native Dublin.

He had his LinkedIn page all set, ready to put his Economics and Marketing qualifications to good use, but then a call came out of the blue from Atlanta, Georgia in the US.

Fast forward to today and 26-year-old O’Keeffe is one of the most in-form players in Major League Rugby, starring for a Rugby ATL side who have big ambitions of winning the North American competition outright.

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The Lansdowne club man has regularly featured in the Major League Rugby [MLR] team of the week over the course of the opening 10 rounds and he has his eye on qualifying to play for the USA under the residency rule.

O’Keeffe spent the last two seasons playing for Rugby United New York alongside the likes of Ben Foden, Mathieu Bastareaud, and a host of Irish players but finished up with the club when the pandemic hit.

The new 2021 season kicked off in March and O’Keeffe didn’t have a contract lined up until Rugby ATL gave him that surprise call the week before the new season kicked off. Three days later, he was on a flight to the States and he hasn’t looked back since.

The Rugby ATL training HQ in Marietta, Georgia is an excellent facility that houses a gym, training pitches, meeting rooms, recovery facilities, and a team room. It’s very different to what O’Keeffe was used to in New York, where he could spend hours every day on the subway getting from training pitch to gym to physio appointments.

“The professionalism of Atlanta has really helped me, we’re in every day – meetings, gym, nutrition – everything is looked after,” says O’Keeffe. “It’s as close as you’ll get in the US to the Munster or Leinster set-up.”

O’Keeffe came through St. Michael’s College in Dublin and was part of the same team as James Ryan, Dan Leavy, Ross Molony, Ross Byrne, Nick McCarthy, and Cian Kelleher. Some of his American team-mates find it hard to believe how professional the Michael’s programme was when O’Keeffe tells them about it.

He played in the 2013 Leinster Schools Senior Cup final, won by a Blackrock side including Sean Coughlan – now one of O’Keeffe’s team-mates in Atlanta.

O’Keeffe featured for the Leinster U19s and then moved to Connacht for his U20s year. He didn’t advance into a provincial academy but opted for college in Galway, which didn’t last for too long.

“If I had stayed in Galway, I don’t think I’d be here in Atlanta now,” says O’Keeffe.

“Galway is similar to American college because I found everyone lived out of home and there were just no rules. I moved back to Dublin and my mum kept some manners on me!”

O’Keeffe was a strong finisher for Lansdowne. Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

O’Keeffe came through as a prolific wing for Lansdowne, a club he has great love for and who he helped to a stunning 2017/18 season when they topped the All-Ireland League, won the play-offs, and also won the All-Ireland Bateman and Leinster Senior Cups.

“It says a lot when you have coaches like Mark McHugh and Mike Ruddock, who won a Grand Slam with Wales.

“He was coaching us in semi-pro rugby. Lansdowne always push you to be better, so it was no shock to come over here and go into a professional set-up.” 

O’Keeffe wasn’t thinking about pro rugby in 2018. However, his former Lansdowne team-mate Ross Deacon – another current Rugby ATL player – recommended him to Rugby United New York [RUNY] and O’Keeffe got a call. He had already been considering looking for a graduate visa in the States so it was the ”easiest decision ever” to sign up.

He was a hit in New York in his first season, starting 13 games mainly in midfield, while also learning new skills away from the game. MLR contracts last for six months to cover what were initially very short campaigns, so the off-season meant getting a new gig. Former RUNY owner James Kennedy set him up as a project manager.

“I think he gave me a bit too much power, to be honest,” says O’Keeffe with a laugh. “I turned up at this site in Brooklyn at 7am and I wasn’t prepared. I was in my skinny jeans and Vans and there were six lads looking at me asking, ‘What do we do?’

“I had never done anything like this before in my life so it was pretty ridiculous. I did the old Irish thing of maintaining the bluff. This architect was asking me about the drawings and I just didn’t have a clue. But look, I learned and that kept me ticking over in between seasons.”

Last year, O’Keeffe played in the glamorous World Tens Series in Bermuda after the MLR had been curtailed and he’s hopeful of featuring in this year’s competition over the course of seven weeks in Florida. 

There is plenty of road still ahead in the 2021 MLR, however, with eight more regular-season rounds to be followed by semi-finals and a final.

Rugby ATL currently lead the Eastern Conference ahead of this weekend’s clash with a high-profile LA Giltinis team that includes stars like Matt Giteau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, and DTH van der Merwe – who O’Keeffe played with in Bermuda last year.

Rugby ATL don’t have the same big names, their focus instead having been on building a deep squad of hungry, ambitious players out to prove a point. The formula has worked so far and O’Keeffe is loving the community feel of the club, which benefits from the presence of the nearby Life University – “rugby is the American football for the college” – where AJ MacGinty came through to qualify for the US.

O’Keeffe would love to do the same and though World Rugby has now changed residency requirements to five years, they delayed that move due to the pandemic. Having arrived in the US in 2018, O’Keeffe may sneak in as US-eligible before the end of this year. His club are currently handling the situation and it would help their cause due to each MLR team only being allowed 10 non-US-eligible players.

Having Coughlan and Deacon in Atlanta is a nice reminder of home and O’Keeffe jokes that “Ross is like the dad of our little Irish group, and Sean and I are like the two problem children basically.”

O’Keeffe only joined Rugby ATL in March.

There is also the fun of bumping into familiar Irish faces on other MLR teams, as when he came up against his old friends in RUNY.

“Will Leonard would be one of my best mates, I lived with him in New York. When we played against each other, I was lining up in front of him. I used to be going into his bedroom on a hungover Sunday to give him pizza and now he was running straight at me. It was very funny.”

The entire Rugby ATL squad have already been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and life in Georgia sounds very normal indeed. 

“Everything is fully open here, you don’t have to wear a mask anywhere in Georgia now if you don’t want to.” 

O’Keeffe is excited about the growth in the quality of US rugby he has witnessed over the past three seasons and feels the high-profile signings serve to increase outside interest but also mean young US players have good mentors to learn from.

The launch of The Rugby Network – which screens all games live internationally – has helped to build the MLR’s profile and O’Keeffe points out that the games are often very open and entertaining. 

O’Keeffe’s current visa is up next year – “Justin Bieber would have the same visa as I do,” he says with a smile – but he’s determined to make this new lease of life last into the future.

“A few months ago, I nearly finished up with rugby and this weekend I’ll be playing opposite Adam Ashley-Cooper. It’s not too bad.”