Saturday 20 January 2018

Things finally looking up for Earls and Munster

After three-year absence, former European Cup winner is back in semi-final with eyes on big prize

Keith Earls is ‘loving every minute of everything at the moment’ at Munster. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Keith Earls is ‘loving every minute of everything at the moment’ at Munster. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Keith Earls spent too much of his short life searching for answers not knowing that his short life would eventually find them for him.

He knows who he is now.

"I'm a father. I'm a husband. I'm a rugby player." No further questions, your honour.

He started his European career at the top, on the bench in 2008, as Munster won a second title in three seasons.

Twenty and fearless. He didn't know any answers. Or questions. Didn't need to. Paulie, Rog, Quinny, Wally, Dougie - they took care of it like Gaillimh and Claw and Woodie had before them.

"I thought I had to be like the older lads," Earls muses reflectively of that whirlwind, head-first fling into the bearpit of manic aggression and a life lived permanently perched upon a precipice.

Keith Earls celebrating last weekend’s Guinness PRO12 victory over Ulster with Simon Zebo. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Keith Earls celebrating last weekend’s Guinness PRO12 victory over Ulster with Simon Zebo. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

"When I came into the group first I was young. I had to be in a squad with men that were having kids for a couple of years. I got mature quite early at a young age, learned a lot off the ROGs and the Paulies and the Dougies."

Munster haven't returned to a final since. Earls won a Grand Slam and toured with the Lions but he bothered himself too much about why. He thought he had the answers but realised he was asking the wrong questions.

Now, as Munster face a fifth semi-final week since 2008, Earls is an ancient mariner of 29, a father and a husband who has finally discovered that he doesn't need any answers at all.

He remains as committed as ever to his work but he doesn't bring it home anymore.

"I've definitely found a good balance in my life," says the husband of Edel and father of Ella-May and Laurie.

"Whereas years ago it would have been all rugby, but now I'm gone more to the other side. That's something I've picked up on the last 18 months."

The old Munster warriors needed an inferiority complex to drive them to destiny but they probably drove the engine too hard by the end of it all.

What they used to become great was past its sell-by date; such feral ferocity no longer fit for purpose.

Earls has straddled both eras; an elder statesman now, heading the beginning of a legacy forged upon the legendary days from which he emerged.

"The lads who have come in have brought me back down to my age nearly," he smiles.

"I'm a lot more relaxed and I'm enjoying it. Still the younger lads need a kick up the arse every now and then. They still have to drive standards and they are a different breed."

Earls knows he need not shoulder that burden alone any more; for a while there, it seemed that he, like the whole club itself, had become mired in a fug of confusion, altering coaches and game-plans with alacrity.

Trying to become something else and forgetting who they were. Earls had to tear himself away from that rocky road.

The birth and occasionally fraught health of his own family allowed for the introspection he needed for himself.

And this year, of course, death has forced the whole place to regather a sense of not necessarily where they are going but just exactly where they are. Here.

"It's great to be here," he acknowledges. "I definitely had to find myself. I suppose with the amount of rugby I'd played, I had to adapt my training, gym-wise, and adapt as a man, becoming a father. I'm loving every minute of everything at the moment."

And he doesn't have to worry about the younger players. "If anything, they have helped me." Munster have always been player-driven but this generation seem to operate on a more mindful level.

"They're still tough, hard men, but they know how to switch off. Even before going into a meeting, someone can be running off having the craic but then we get in here and they're switched on.

"It's a lot more relaxing. I don't know how to describe it; fellas aren't on edge 24/7. They're probably on edge when we're in the centre here. When we're on the field we still kill each other. When we're in meetings we'll have a go off each other.

"But, in general, it's a good balance we have."

Munster have needed to find that balance for so many reasons.

Less than a year after their second triumph, they were nailed-on favourites for an immediate third in 2009, after blitzing the Ospreys en route to a Croke Park last-four date with then perennial also-rans Leinster.

Few expected defeat; fewer still that it would begin a run of four losing semi-finals.

"It was a weird one, starting out and going onto the bench straight away for my first European game, a final, although obviously I didn't get a run," recalls Earls.

"Munster had unbelievable years, getting to semis and quarter-finals. It just brings it back down to earth how hard the competition is now.

"And how much sacrifices they gave up years ago. I suppose that is built into us now a small bit. I suppose pressure would have got to us before. The pressure with everything, being favourites.

"We would have won a lot of quarters and group stages handily. I'm not saying we fell in love with ourselves but you wouldn't be as challenged as you would in a semi-final or a final."

Pressure is not knowing whether you'll get the chance to make a semi-final at all. This time last year, they were scrapping and scraping just to qualify for the Champions Cup.

Another unavoidable quirk to the tale - even though he squirms with slight agitation at the merest mention of it - was the tantalising possibility that, instead of lining out in Munster red, he may have been in Saracens black this weekend.

He never wanted to leave but a complicated combination of personal and professional circumstances almost presented him with a difficult career compromise. Mercifully for all, he was never brought to what would have been an improbable brink of exit from the only life he has known.

"It would have been an awkward week for me, wouldn't it?" he smiles.

"Look it didn't happen so there's no point in talking about it if that's alright to leave it as that kind of an answer."

Hence, Earls can appreciate what this week is when it could have been - again - all about what it isn't.

"It was a tough place trying to qualify for this tournament not to mind being in a semi-final this week.

"You always had your people who would support you but it's gone through the roof again, red flags everywhere and everyone's looking for signed jerseys.

"It's brilliant for the lads in the past to see this crop of lads keep things going. We won't be scared of pressure this week, you know. I don't think young lads feel pressure any more, which is weird."

It's as if nothing else matters and few things matter much to quote dreary old AJ Balfour.

Problem was he hated life; Earls and Munster are loving it. After all, that's what life has taught them.

Irish Independent

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