Keith Earls: 'It's a pity that it took our head coach to die for us to play the way he wanted us to'
Keith Earls reflects on his red card on that emotional day in Thomond Park
Keith Earls has got only one regret about his actions in Munster's emotionally charged win over Glasgow last month, and it is not the tackle that resulted in a 19th-minute red card.
A day after Anthony Foley was laid to rest, the outpouring of grief at Thomond Park for the Champions Cup clash was truly unforgettable, and although in many people's eyes, that emotion got the better of Earls, even now, he sees it differently.
Referee Jerome Garces sent Earls off for an apparent dangerous tackle on Glasgow hooker Fraser Brown and although the subsequent two-week been that he received meant that he missed Ireland's historic win over New Zealand, that game in Limerick was the one he so desperately wanted to be involved in.
Earls has always been a straight-up, honest speaker and from talking to him yesterday, the sheer raw emotion and indeed anger was extremely prevalent.
As one of Munster's senior players, Earls understands the responsibility that is on his shoulders. A role model for so many, particularly for those in the not so well-off parts of Limerick, the 29-year-old is adamant that he did not deserve a red card for the tackle.
What he does, however, openly admit is that his actions following Garces' decision were out of order. As Earls trudged off the pitch, he booted a bunch of water bottles towards his own bench.
Normally such a calming influence, few would deny Earls having that moment of frustration but even a month later, he is still visibly furious about how the events unfolded that day.
"Yeah it was tough," he sighs, readying himself to unload a weight that has clearly been on his mind since.
"It was a massive game, it meant a lot to us. It was a tough week in general; from burying your head coach and then an hour later doing a captain's run. It's just not right.
"I suppose the only thing I do apologise for - I don't apologise for anything else - is kicking the bottles on the side of the pitch. I wouldn't like to see a young lad doing that at underage or some young lad at Thomond Park.
"I suppose I've been waiting to be interviewed to apologise for that, but I don't apologise for the rest of it.
"I spoke to Fraser Brown on the phone and I felt he could have done a bit more. Yes, I did lift his leg but I felt he could have done a bit more to save the impact. The way he went, I thought he was going for it a small bit, to be honest with you.
"I spoke to him and he said he was just trying to protect himself. I felt I was cheated really going off the pitch. They denied me an opportunity to put in a performance for my head coach and the Munster supporters so I kind of lost it a bit coming off the pitch."
No-one will ever know what was really going through any of the Munster players' heads that day but Earls insists that he was calm.
Foley's passing has changed everything within the club and for Earls, his perspective on life in general has changed too.
While rugby remains crucial to him, he has a better understanding of how fickle life can be. With two young kids of his own, Earls is grateful for everything that he has.
"I was relaxed. I was really looking forward to it (game against Glasgow)," Earls recalls.
"We hadn't been taking our chances. We were looking through the start of the season and we were creating so many chances and we didn't take them.
"We relaxed. The week was crazy but I suppose for a lot of us, it put things in perspective. Down in Munster, it's been a tough two years.
"Axel went through a tough two years and we kind of said 'He's not here anymore. His wife and kids are at home and their lives have been turned upside down'.
"We got worried about a lot of rugby matches. I was like 'It's stupid really. We need to go out and relax and take the chances'.
"And that's what we did against Glasgow and that's what we've done ever since. I suppose it's a pity that it's after taking our head coach to die for us to play the way he wanted us to play. But that's what it is.
"I've taken rugby in a completely different way now because of Axel's death. I get to go home to my family every day.
"Rugby to me now. . . obviously it's a massive part of my life but it's sport at the end of the day. That has really opened my eyes."
While Rassie Erasmus has brought about his own way of doing things down south, Foley was an integral part of his long-term plan and Earls knows that better than anyone.
Erasmus has spoken eloquently about learning the true meaning of what it means to be from Munster and in Earls' eyes, the younger players in the squad also have a deeper understanding of it.
"I think that was the thing with a lot of the young lads who came through. They spoke about this Munster family and probably thought 'Jeez, this thing is a bit of a myth' because we had been shocking for two years," he says.
"Just the response of all the ex-players around that week and how much together Munster actually is. Some of the stuff that went on for Axel and they were like 'This thing is for real.'"
Even from the outside looking in, there was a noticeable change in Foley's demeanour this season. He seemed like a man who was thriving in his new role and that was certainly the feeling among the players, as Earls explains:
"Being part of the senior players down in Munster, we would have had a lot of chats with Axel. He'd kind of get his side over to us and we'd try and get it into the squad.
"I think Axel was very comfortable in his role. He didn't have to deal with the man-management point of view, the province as a whole or dealing with media. He just got to coach.
"You'd say something if it was two years ago when he dies, you would have been like 'Yeah, jeez he's stressed. The stress of the job has done it to him.' But he was actually really happy. He was getting messages across clear. Himself and Rassie were really starting to click.
"We would have been heading in the right direction anyway but it's a different situation now the way it's after going.
"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of him and think about his family and his kids."
Restored to Ireland's starting line-up, Earls is back where he wants to be but his place has come at the expense of his Munster team-mate Simon Zebo.
However, had he not been shown the red card against Glasgow, Earls almost certainly would have started on the left wing in Chicago.
His performance against Canada was that of someone with a chip on his shoulder and with a point to prove but at the end of the day, as he rightly put it himself, there are more important things in life than a rugby match.
"It's unfortunate for Zeebs," Earls says. "I spoke with him. We're good buddies and there is nothing different about our relationship. I spoke with him briefly. We were straight on messing and he was slagging me. That's just the way it is.
"I'm delighted to get my opportunity and hopefully I'll put in a good performance, like the last three games.
"For us, we know that the pressure is there after beating the All Blacks. It's just about consistent performances. It's not about who you beat. It's about being as consistent and as good as we can be.
"We're a good side when things go right for us and we are all clued in."
After the most turbulent time in his career, Earls is back with a fresh outlook on life. Perhaps more could learn a thing or two from him.