Nerves have stopped me playing my best for Ireland, reveals Keith Earls
IRELAND winger Keith Earls (25) says that nerves have plagued him throughout his Ireland career, forcing him to make some adjustments to a routine that was causing too much anguish
Now the 25-year-old Munster winger has abandoned the pre-match rituals that were affecting his sanity in favour of a more relaxed attitude to playing.
Earls will deputise for the injured Brian O'Driscoll at outside centre in Saturday's critical IRB rankings showdown with Argentina at the Aviva.
"At the start of the season I gave up all my superstitions because they were driving me mad," he said.
"If I didn't have Rosary Beads or didn't have this or that, then....
"I had three particular Rosary Beads....I'd kiss one three times and another four times.
"If I'd forgotten my Rosary Beads I'd think 'I can't play now'.
"I tried to have a routine and not think about the game because if I thought about it I'd drive myself mad."
A meeting with Ireland's amateur boxing team - and Beijing silver medalist Kenny Egan in particular - arranged by the management before the Guinness Series began proved eye-opening.
For a player who battles to keep his temperament even before a game, taking an almost blasé approach has proved hugely beneficial.
"When the boxers came in a couple of weeks ago Kenny Egan said he is laughing and joking 15 minutes before he boxes," he said.
"Once it reaches 15 minutes before the fight, he's just thinking about the fight, but before that he's joking.
"Now I prefer just to get off the bus and play the game. It seems to be working for me.
"In the warm-up area I'll play a bit of handball with a tennis ball with the lads.
"We'll play some music and I'll take a look at pictures of my family and daughter.
"It keeps your mind off things - you have to do what's right for you.
"I'm an instinct player and I like to get out there and play without thinking too much."
The psychology of Earls and his Ireland team-mates will be tested to the fullest by Argentina on Saturday.
It is a game that both sides must win to remain among the second tier of seeds for the World Cup draw, which is being held in London on December 3.
The loser will slip below eighth place, leaving them in a pool alongside two heavyweights.
The stakes are impossibly high and could conceivably shape the landscape of Irish rugby for the next seven years given an early exit from a hellish group would leave them waiting until 2019 to make amends.
Earls insists the only way to approach the clash is by treating like any other, although he accepts losing to South Africa 10 days ago has also upped the ante.
"There's always pressure when you're playing international games," he said.
"There are ranking points available for the next World Cup but we haven't really spoken about that. I suppose it will be a cup final kind of thing.
"We've only spoken about ourselves and we need a victory anyway this autumn.
"We beat Fiji at the weekend but for ourselves going forward we need to click and produce a big performance."
Argentina face an equally desperate situation and have endured a mixed autumn so far, beating Wales before losing 39-22 to France last Saturday.
The general consensus is that they have benefited from exposure to this season's Rugby Championship, even if they did finish bottom.
"They're physical men, passionate fellas. We're two passionate countries. Argentina have always given us a good run for our money," Earls said.
"They're physical men who play hard. We'll have to front up against them. They've come a long way with their game.
"Graham Henry has been brought in to help with their coaching and they've been putting teams under pressure. It's great to see them evolve."