Earls aiming to take flight
Winger desperate for chance to shine against Scotland
Published 25/02/2011 | 05:00
When Tommy Bowe was declared fit to play against Scotland, his return to the team never in doubt.
Similarly, Luke Fitzgerald's recovery from the knee injury sustained in November was always likely to propel him back into the starting line-up, regardless of the absentee problems in the back three.
However, Keith Earls, the third member of Sunday's unit, has never been a lock-down selection in the side and there was speculation ahead of Wednesday's team announcement that Andrew Trimble might be brought back into the side or that Fergus McFadden might cross to the left wing.
Earls held off the challenge and will win his 16th cap in Murrayfield, entering the contest with a determination to play a more influential role than against Italy or France.
"I think I touched the ball two or three times against France, it was very frustrating," said the 23-year-old. "When I came off my wing to look for the ball it was gone out to the wing. When it was coming wide, I was stuck to the touchline. It was a hard game to get into.
"I have to go looking for ball on Sunday. Hopefully, Darce (Gordon D'Arcy) and Drico (Brian O'Driscoll) will get the ball to me this weekend and I can have a good run at it."
When Earls was first brought through at Munster a few years ago, he was kept under wraps, Ryan Giggs-style, to protect him from the inevitable hype surrounding a player who had earned rave reviews on his way up the underage ranks. He is far more comfortable with exposure these days, while retaining the enthusiasm of a youngster still relatively dazzled by the spotlight.
And, although that starting slot has never been nailed down à la Bowe, there is still that surge of excitement when Earls receives the ball, the anticipation that something special could be about to happen. One recalls the wondrous try he scored against the Dragons in Musgrave Park in 2008 (one of three) when still a teenager.
That was down the left also, as Earls kicked ahead and chipped the ball into his hands at full tilt, a skill so subtle that at first it was mistaken for a fortunate bounce. The following summer, he recovered from a torrid start on the Lions tour to convince a dubious British media exactly why he had brought to South Africa.
And, last year, on the left wing in Fitzgerald's absence, he shone again with a try in Twickenham and two against Wales in Ireland's best performances of a hit-and-miss Six Nations championship. Against France, two weeks ago, it was Earls' surge down the left and weighted kick ahead that came agonisingly close to setting up the win Ireland's efforts deserved.
"That's the bounce of the rugby ball, isn't it?" he recalled. "Their winger was on the touchline, so I chipped it over and I was going to tackle Medard, but he took his eye off it for a split second which meant I maybe tackled him without the ball, but I knew I had support there with Jamie (Heaslip) and I thought he'd get in, but it was good scrambled defence from France."
Six tries in 15 outings is a healthy return and the Limerick man has the speed, skill and scoring knack to have a big say on Sunday. Crucially, his defence has been impressive also, and he will need to be physical against the 6' 4" Nikki Walker, who goes into the game high on confidence following three tries for the Ospreys last weekend.
After more than three years of playing alongside Ronan O'Gara at Munster, Earls welcomes his return to out-half while holding Jonathan Sexton, the man who makes way, in the highest regard.
"Jonny is more physical, but the two of them are great ball players," he said. "ROG puts in his tackles, if you see the last year or two, he's put his body on the line. The competition is bringing out the best in each of them.
"You have to be always alert to ROG. If you're not out on the wing he'll start giving out, but it's all good."
After Sunday, there will be just six games to go to the start of the World Cup and the jostling for starting places has begun in earnest.
Earls is one of a clutch of players seeking 'undroppable' status. Murrayfield will tell a lot.