Back in March of that year, the Exiles were found guilty of fielding the Kiwi scrum-half illegally for ten league games with a fake English passport and deducted five league points which all but ended their hopes of survival.
While the player’s and the club’s innocence were never questioned, the Exiles were the ones who brought the matter to the RFU attention, former manager Mike Scott was solely held responsible and banned for life from any involvement in rugby.
Quiet until now, Keats wanted to finally give his side of the story.
“It was all over the news. My name was dragged through the mud in England and even back home in New Zealand. It was by far the toughest time of my career,” he exclusively told The Rugby Paper.
“I felt like a black sheep turning up at training every day while the investigation was going on but the boys and the management were very supportive. They knew it wasn’t my fault. They took the mickey out of me but it was all in good faith.
“Aside from the points deduction and the relegation, the worst part was what it meant for my team-mates. Even though I wasn’t responsible, it was my name that cost a few of them their Premiership contract.
“It all started before I moved to England from Aironi. My agent asked Mike if I should go back to New Zealand to sort my visa out but he said he could do it in England.
“Then just before the opening game against Leicester, I found out I couldn’t play because it hadn’t come through. I asked what was going on but the following week against Quins I was ‘fine’ to play as Mike assured everyone at the club that it was all sorted.
“It then became clear there was an issue when he didn’t turn up for a trip to France in the Amlin Cup and Alfie To’oala was left behind because Mike had his passport.
“Further investigation found that he suffered from a mental breakdown which led to the appointment of a new manager who discovered that my documents, filed on my behalf by Mike, weren’t correct.
“I feel sorry for Mike who is actually a nice guy but he felt the pressure to get me on the field as soon as possible and went to the length of forging my passport stating I was from Christchurch, Devon, rather than Christchurch, New Zealand. I was basically an illegal immigrant for the first few months. The club then sent me to the English embassy in Paris and in one day I had my ancestry visa so I could play in the Premiership legally.
“Not once was I questioned by the police or immigration people. Everyone was aware that it was one man’s actions.”
Before moving to Europe, Keats owned a business while playing for Canterbury before joining the Hurricanes where he was the understudy to London Welsh star signing Piri Weepu. A change in management at the Wellington franchise pushed him out of New Zealand and he joined Aironi in Italy before arriving at Old Deer Park in the summer of 2012.
“I owned an exterior panel plastering painting business while I was playing for Canterbury until I joined the Hurricanes in the North Island and I had to sell my business,” he said.
“Playing NPC with Canterbury for four years was great. I remember the 2008 final against Wellington where we had 13 All Blacks in our side and they had 14. It was pretty intense but I never felt out of place.
“Playing alongside guys like Richie McCaw and Dan Carter makes your job easier on the pitch. I then moved to the Hurricanes where I was behind Piri Weepu in the pecking order. That’s when I shared a place with a young Beauden Barrett who was just getting out of his family farm and didn’t know how to do his own cooking and washing.
“But two years into my three-year deal, the Hurricanes CEO changed and I had to sign a new deal. So I decided to move to Italy and join Aironi on a three-year deal.
“Unfortunately, they went bankrupt at the end of my first year and that’s when I ended up at London Welsh. Being so late in the season, they were the only one recruiting at that stage after winning promotion.”
Following the affair and the subsequent relegation to the Championship, Keats was released and he was set to join Top14 side Perpignan but the deal fell through after he injured his shoulder in the gym.
Without a club and needing a surgery, the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA) stepped in and took care of everything for him. He was back fit by the New Year and two months later he was back at London Welsh in a bid to help them go back to the Premiership.
It might have looked like the last place Keats would make his return but it proved to everyone that the relationship between the player and the club remained strong despite the events from the previous year.
Needless to say, Keats tip-toed his way back to training but found a club in a totally different state than when he left.
This time, Keats is adamant they will stay up which would bring some closure to two very long years.
“After my shoulder injury, which was kindly taken care off by the RPA, I became director of rugby at St Joseph’s College while following London Welsh’s progress in the Championship,” he said. “Then I ended up talking to the chairman and he asked me if I wanted to come back to help out. I met Justin Burnell and we were on the same page so I went back.
“That just shows that despite what happened there is very good relationship between myself and the club. They’ve been great with me and even now I’m off contract they’re still taking care of my medical bills for the Achilles injury I sustained in the semi-final against Leeds.
“Coming back was a bit strange at first and I was apprehensive but I learnt quickly it was a different environment and the club was in a very good place with Justin in charge. He created a great culture everyone wanted to be a part of and I’m certain they’ll stay up this year.
“It might not erase the past but it will bring me closure to see them stay up. I’m injured at the minute but if they need me to help out once I’m fit I’ll happily go back to the Kassam.”
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