Saturday 10 December 2016

Fright of the Earls - Winger admits to being 'tormented' by anxiety

Published 26/02/2016 | 02:30

Keith Earls
Keith Earls

Keith Earls is only 28 but he is old enough to forget what it is like to have no fear. And if he tries hard enough to remember, he might recall that it wasn't quite possible for him.

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Not the courage for battle, mind, or even that indomitable mental toughness which one requires heading into a Twickenham fortress; after all, he scored a try there in his first involvement in this ancient rivalry.

With his first touch in international rugby, in fact, he scored a try less than a couple of furlongs from the front door of his family home.

As anyone privileged enough to have witnessed his father Ger play can vividly validate, an Earls playing rugby doesn't show fear within pitched battle.

But his fear was of a more fraught variety. Rather, he would perhaps have craved the fearlessness of one who doesn't jolt with anticipation before the game, or fret at the consequences of what might happen during it, or the possibilities of what could happen after it.

Agony

The business of life, professional and personal, has now inured him to such feelings; the once tortuous agony with which he contemplated what position suited him best on a rugby field has been consigned to a rusty attic of memory.

"You mightn't have seen it with me but I was always tormenting myself in my own head," he says.

The sage, nodding heads in agreement signify at once that we did all know. It is only now that he has released that tension, he can wryly reflect upon it.

We speak in the context of Ireland unfurling fearless youth at a venue where history deems it imprudent to do so: Stuart McCloskey, Josh van der Flier and Ultan Dillane will all earn their first caps tomorrow evening.

They are as ready as they are ever going to be. And as fearless as Earls was never going to be.

"I would have loved to have been like that at their age," the elder sage of the last 'new breed' says admiringly of the latest wave of the 'new breed'.

"There definitely is a difference," replies Earls - returning to the wing after concussion forced him to miss defeat in Paris - replies when asked about the trio's apparent fearlessness.

"They just come in as cool as the breeze, taking it all in their stride. They're doing a lot of nice touches and great plays in training.

"Three quiet fellas but three fellas who have been taking it in their stride. I don't think there's any fear there. They're too young to know what fear or pressure is.

"Chatting to Stu on the field, he's demanding what he likes and asking what I like. He's been great. He's had a phenomenal season. I think all three of them have had a phenomenal season. Hopefully it can keep going."

Aside from their bravado, all three pack a punch: take McCloskey; he may have the number 12 on his back but at 6ft 3ins and 17st 1lb he possesses the build of a forward; Willie John McBride had, give or take and inch or a pound or two, the same measurements.

"Look at the size of Stu, he's 17 stone!" marvels Earls. "I was doing a couple of tackling bags with Ultan there and it was like hitting a bull. The weight of him. I said it to Johnny Sexton. How heavy is that fella?

"Normally you might drive him back a bit but it was just, Bang! Stop! They're three physical guys so hopefully they can do a job on Saturday."

Earls has done a job here before, of course.

"2010 was a great day for us, Tommy Bowe scored two great tries. Everything just seemed to click that day and we just went at them," he recalls. "Thankfully a few scraps and a few calls went our way and we got a good win over there.

"I've taken a few hidings off them as well. It's not an easy place to go. You have to try and drown it out and weather the storm a bit and not make decisions for them to make good plays.

"You stick together and stick to your patterns and hopefully they will start getting frustrated if they can't get through.

"It's their first game back at Twickenham since the World Cup so I assume they will want to make a statement and they'll want to give something to the fans.

"We are not far off, it is that last pass or someone missing their role. You have been hearing it the last couple of years, it is about our own roles, our own detail.

"We have been creating the chances, it is just about finishing them off. A lot of teams can go through that."

The Moyross man's evasion and speed will, it is hoped, exploit any holes the aforementioned giants can smash open for him, even if he was also rather pleased with his impressive defensive effort against Wales before his concussion.

"Some people say to you it's great to get a break. We don't need a break, I like momentum, I like to keep going, keep going. You get a lot of confidence when you keep going," he says.

"I was happy against Wales. Even though a few people were giving about it. They give out when you miss tackles, and then give out when you make them! You can't keep everyone happy!"

He just wants to keep himself happy. McCloskey was earmarked for inside-centre since last week; in the past, Earls might have anguished over falling another place in the midfield queue.

No longer. Free from injury and secured in a new Munster contract, he is secure in himself, too.

"Once I got back fit again, that ambition has left me," he smiles. So has the fear.

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