Fast-finishing Earls makes most of talents to become indispensable in red and green
In a tumultuous weekend of Champions Cup rugby action the performance of Keith Earls stood out. Earls, along with James Ryan, may have been the only Irish player to enhance his reputation during the Six Nations campaign, his three tries equalling a personal record. Those tries neatly showcased three of the wing's most noteworthy qualities.
The one against Scotland derived from his willingness to back up the man in possession. Against Italy, Earls' ability to find room in tight spaces got him over the line, while his scorching pace was in evidence when he sprinted clear of the French defence after a cunning set move.
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Another couple of weapons in the Earls armoury were apparent as he scored the two tries which gave Munster quarter-final victory over Edinburgh. Few players seem as perpetually switched on as the Limerick man, so constantly alive to possibility.
So perhaps it should have been no surprise when he quickly tapped the ball to himself when Munster were awarded a penalty near the home line. Yet not just the opposition defence but Earls' team-mates and a substantial proportion of the spectators were caught on the hop as he scored.
Try number two showed perhaps the most important aspect of Earls' game, his gifts as a finisher. So matter of fact is the way he does business that on first sight the try looked almost routine. Yet a look from head on at the action replay and at a superb photograph taken of the score showed how difficult the player's task had been.
Earls had to beat a couple of defenders, avoid putting a foot in touch and put the ball down in what, the shot of him touching down with one hand while flying through the air makes clear, was probably the only place available to him. Later in the day, Jacob Stockdale would show in spectacular fashion just what can go wrong in such positions.
Stockdale's Irish team-mate would never have made the same mistake because Earls has always given the impression of getting the very last ounce out of his talent. Lacking the physical size and phenomenal speed of the new-model elite wingers typified by Stockdale, he's had no choice. Earls was a prodigy himself at one stage, his selection for the 2009 Lions at the age of 21 promising a glittering career.
But after finishing joint top try scorer at the 2010 Six Nations Earls found it difficult to reach the expected heights.
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It's astounding to think that a player who's scored seven tries in the last three Six Nations championships went from February 2012 to March 2016 without scoring one. Injuries, one of which required knee surgery, didn't help and when Ireland won their first two Six Nations titles under Joe Schmidt in 2014 and 2015, he'd slipped behind Andrew Trimble, Dave Kearney and Simon Zebo in the pecking order.
The last four years have witnessed a remarkable renaissance.
The emergence of such remarkable young talents as Stockdale, Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway might have been expected to put Earls under pressure but such has been his consistency you suspect he is one of the first names Joe Schmidt pencils on each team-sheet. Experience has brought increased guile, while his appetite has if anything grown with the years.
Earls' determination to make the most of every opportunity was probably honed by years of playing on Munster teams where at times a winger's job consisted of eking out a few extra yards in a confined area. No-one is better at the dirty work of turning two yards into five, no-one battles harder for every extra morsel of ground.
It's tempting to suggest that Earls must envy the situation of his Leinster peers and all the opportunities afforded to wingers by the more expansive game played on the East coast. He'd probably have scored a few more tries there, yet that hardly worries him because Keith Earls seems like Munster incarnate.
More precisely, he is the living embodiment of the tradition of working-class Limerick rugby which more than anything else has given Munster rugby its unique flavour. Keith Earls stands for something important. There is something moving about watching him in action, as there always is about seeing someone with absolute integrity perform to the utmost of their ability. There's no-one quite like him.
Long may he run.
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