Dashing Earls finally learning how to slow down
Published 23/05/2015 | 02:30
Keith Earls is only 27 but already he can muse wistfully on a time when he was young and when others seemed so, so old.
John Hayes, for example.
'The Bull', usually accompanied by fellow car sharing farmer and tighthead Tony Buckley, would haul themselves from an impossibly small Audi A3 with all the grace and elegance of a pair of pregnant hippopotami.
Meanwhile, Earls and a gaggle of gambolling lambs would spring, jet-heeled, to the training paddock.
"I was one of the fast-twitch fellas, yeah" he smiles now.
Housing a taut bale of those fast-twitch muscle fibres barely capable of containing his competitive spirit, a coiled spring of nervous anticipation, Earls and his kith would be amused at the elder lemons shuffling to the start of training like pensioners idling down the communion aisle at Sunday Mass.
"I'd see John Hayes getting out of the car like an old man and you'd be laughing at him, struggling," says Earls. "I'd be flying past him running down to the field, messing about.
"All that messing about at training, it all probably caught up with me really. I've been a professional for ten years now so the body catches up a bit."
Now Earls is the one who takes his time going to training; he has slowed his mind and body right down, such that he feels more calm and collected than at any time before in his decade-long stint occupying the intense coalface of the sport.
His body has been so bruised and battered, his mind so fettered and flustered, that something had to give; ultimately, he ceded that innate desire to cling on to eternal youth.
As he celebrates a burst of try-scoring form following his belated recovery from yet more surgical intervention, while he and partner Edel prepare for the birth of their imminent second child - it is clear to see that Earls and maturity have finally shaken hands.
"I'm just taking my time now warming up," he explains. "After our meetings we've half and hour to warm-up on your own before the team warm-up. Before, I was well capable of getting up to a good quick speed.
"But when you're stepping a lot in training, you need to be well warmed up. Maybe in the last couple of years, I hadn't found the right warm-up. I have to forget I'm not 23 any more.
"Once the body is right, your confidence is going to soar. You can go out and play a match with no worries in the back of your mind at all.
"You just have to think about playing rugby, you're not thinking about the knee or the shoulder. Your mind is clear.
"Before, I got through a certain stage where I kept getting injuries, I was nearly waiting for the next injury in my head. Now I'm over them and the body is in great shape."
Two years of injury strife, including a devastating knee problem which required two operations at once, weakened, then stiffened, his resolve.
Like a hardy perennial, he knows now that his mind and body need constant pruning.
"I suppose I was just fed up with injuries at that stage," he says, reflecting on his form since Christmas, allied to a more stringent preparation routine.
"I'd be looking towards some mental stuff, trying to fill my head with positive thoughts instead of negative thoughts.
"I'm feeling good. A lot of fellas think I got bigger but if anything I'm lighter - I'm in around 88kg which is probably small for wingers these days. But it allows me to keep going, keep going.
"Two or three years ago, I was about 94kg and I don't think that suited me. I dropped a lot of body fat when I was injured so that's a big focus for me. I'm at my lowest body fat now."
When Jeffrey Treacy from Limerick café Gasto asked Earls to promote his new venture, the player eagerly signed up to the daily lunches and dinners which they prepare, watchfully advised by the Munster nutrition team.
"I was the guinea pig but a lot of us are on it now," he says. "It leaves more time for the family as well, which is a help!"
Family has helped his perspective, too; this term, he played midfield but was returned to the wing by Anthony Foley.
"I'm completely freer in terms of the pressure I put on myself," he says. "Now if that was a couple of years ago, I would have gone to Axel and said 'What are you doing? My form is good at 13, I want to play 13!'
"But now it's just a case of wanting to be on the field regardless of where I play. I'm feeling really good, I'm in a good place."
Foley agrees, saying: "He has grown up. When he was a young guy coming through Munchins he was a big star and everyone had him tagged as one that was going to make it.
"He's a guy who we want to get the ball in his hands. We want to see him with the ball in his hands.
"It doesn't bother him whether he's full-back, wing or 13. He's a good player and he can play anywhere. He's a guy we've a lot of confidence in and from that confidence he's grown and matured into a very good player.
"A lot of the things around Keith is managing his body as well and I think he's doing that very well this year.
"He's a player that's itching to get back into international rugby and hopefully get into a World Cup squad."
Earls wants that too; only now, he doesn't feel the need to scratch the itch as much as he once did.