Earls eager to make up for lost time after injuries
IT SAYS something about the run of luck both Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald have endured that they have won just 14 caps together for Ireland.
Had things worked out differently, the duo would have been mainstays of the national team's backline over the course of the last six years, but instead they have been sidelined by a torrid list of injuries that means at 27 years of age, the pair are playing catch-up.
Tonight, they join each other in green for the first time since Ireland's harrowing Six Nations defeat to Italy in Rome on the final day of the 2013 Six Nations.
That day, Fitzgerald replaced Earls after 24 minutes and lasted just 12 minutes himself. In the end, Peter O'Mahony ended up on the wing as Declan Kidney's era came to a sad end in farcical circumstances.
Since then, Leinster star Fitzgerald has won the solitary cap between them when he came off the bench against New Zealand the following November. Earls has been called into every Joe Schmidt squad he's been fit for, but has had to cry off each time.
"It's been tough. Luke probably had worse injuries than me," said the Munster man, who has been picked to play at outside-centre for the Wolfhounds tonight.
"But I probably picked up more. He had long-term ones, I probably had short-term after short-term, with the knee being the longest one.
"This one has been tough. I'm not saying I would have been selected, but watching the November series, watching Munster playing the Championship Cup, it's been really tough this year, but I'm happy to be back."
Fitzgerald became so frustrated by his successive blows that he contemplated giving up the game altogether, but Earls never got that low.
"No, I never got to that stage thankfully. This knee injury was probably the worst - the patellar tendon. But eh it's a funny enough tendon and thankfully it has healed," he explained.
"I had my operation at the end of September and there was an 80pc success rate and thankfully I seem to be doing all right.
"Luke had awful injuries so you have to credit a man like that for coming back, a man who has won Heineken Cups, been on Lions tours.
"Some might have hung up their boots and been happy with a career but he's hungry."
Having missed out on so much, there must be an onus on the pair of 27-year-olds who made the 2009 Lions tour at 21 to make the most of their opportunities.
"I'm 27 now and for a rugby player that's coming into your prime," Earls said ahead of just his second start of the season.
"My aim is to get a good run of games now and stay healthy and hopefully give some coaches headaches.
"Joe is all about detail. There's a lot of homework to do. You're training, you're in the gym and you're on computers. You could be finishing at 8.0 at night trying to get ready for the following morning because if you don't know your detail Joe will give you the shepherd's hook out of training and put someone else in, who knows their detail. It's busy but it's a good busy.
"I'm just happy to be available and hopefully put my hand up for next weekend."