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Earls learning to see big picture

WHEN the Irish squad eventually pack their bags for New Zealand they'll be full of Playstations, iPads and everything else needed to keep them occupied during their six- week stint at the World Cup.

Keith Earls, however, will be packing some basic text books. As well as the Webb Ellis trophy, the Limerick youngster is looking to pick up some knowledge during the tournament.

He has lived his life as he plays his game -- always in a hurry. Earls' classmates at St Munchin's voted him 'most likely to play on the 2009 Lions tour' in their yearbook. He duly delivered at the age of 21.

Along the way, his education fell way down the list of priorities. The books never seemed as important as the weights session, the ball work or his fitness.

A student of the game he loved, he got through school and after six months on the building sites picked up a professional contract and never looked back.

But last season he was moved to reconsider.

At 23 and having won 18 caps, he has the world of rugby at his feet, but when three of his mates retired prematurely, Earls began to consider what he might be able to fall back on.

He realised it wasn't much, explaining: "I got a big scare this year when I heard David Pollock was retiring and then Ian Dowling and Barry Murphy retired too. It puts the chills in your spine. I played with Pollock at schools and U-19s and he was always an intelligent fella.

"He was studying to be a doctor and Ian Dowling has started a physio course.

"They're all falling back on these things. Barry Murphy has a degree -- he's director of rugby now with UL Bohs and he's got a band who are coming good in Limerick.

"I suppose you want to start planning because you don't know what's around the corner."

Perhaps it's no surprise that it was the teacher in his life who spotted the chink in his armour.

"With Declan (Kidney) being a teacher he is big on fellas doing stuff outside of rugby -- studying accountancy or whatever," he says.

"School was never my thing when I was younger and now that I'm more mature I might start thinking about doing a course and studying the foundations in New Zealand, if I get there.

"I haven't really picked up anything yet. I was speaking to Declan and I think I need to start learning proper spellings and that sort of thing -- learning the big words.

"Jesus, with all the texting we do now we forget all of the bigger words and that sort of stuff.

"I need to learn a lot of the basic English before I come home, having done the foundation, and then I'll try something.

"I didn't go to college -- I went straight on to the building sites working as an electrician for six months.

"Then I got a contract with Munster. Declan Kidney offered me a development contract and I went and the sparks didn't last too long."

Like any media- trained young pro, Earls is keen not to get ahead of himself and prefaces any comments on the World Cup with an 'if selected' tag.

But it's almost inconceivable to consider a squad without the versatile back, who finished the Six Nations with the No 15 jersey on his back.

The Lions didn't work out perfectly, but at 21 it was all about putting experience in the bank -- which will help in New Zealand.

"I think the Lions tour will stand to me," he says.

"I didn't know what to expect then, what pressure was to come.

"Playing rugby is something I dreamt of growing up. But you don't realise when you're playing, or dreaming, that the pressure that comes with it affects your performance.

"The Lions tour stood to me massively. The pressure is harder, but I'm used to it now having played in Six Nations and big matches."

Earls made his Ireland debut in 2009, but -- perhaps surprisingly considering his performances -- he says he only began to feel comfortable in the set-up last season.

"I'm in and around the squad three years now and I started to feel comfortable this year," he says.

"It is difficult when you first come in, I found anyway.

"You grew up watching these fellas and I'm thinking, 'Jesus, this fella is the best player in the world and I'm in here now, in the same squad as him. Am I good enough to be here?'

"I've grown into it now. I've 18 caps. I feel confident and part of the squad which is great for your confidence.

"When I started in my first Six Nations I scored two tries against Wales and one against England. When you do play well, fellas respect you a small bit more.

"There's no point going around, having the craic with the lads when you're thinking 'I'm not even playing'. It's easier when you're in the 22 or the team."

For now, it's all about making the final cut.

Earls and Co return to Carton House this week for more Ireland training after a spell back with Munster last week.

The return of Geordan Murphy, Andrew Trimble and Rob Kearney -- coupled with the rise of Felix Jones -- mean there is plenty of jostling for position among the outside backs.

Earls finished the international season at full-back, but it's the wing position that he wants to nail down.

"You tend to get the No 22 jersey sometimes because you play in loads of positions," he says.

"I've played on the wing more than the centre this year and hopefully Deccie will see me as more of a winger this year and hopefully he will give me a chance on the tour, and hopefully I'll get on the plane.

"There's a lot of rugby to be played and competition for places so they're all up for grabs."

For now, his World Cup dreams ease him to slumber.

His dad took him to see Australia play the USA in a World Cup clash at Thomond in 1999. He also remembers Trevor Brennan challenging Toutai Kefu and the entire Wallaby pack to a duel on his own in Ireland's defeat at Lansdowne Road in the same pool.

Earls won't be following the big Leixlip man's lead -- he'll let his feet and pace do the talking rather than his fists, but in terms of a global impact, Earls knows this is where he wants to be.

"It's the biggest stage in the world, where all good players are made and some are finished," he adds.

The books might be there for the long haul, but in the here and now -- it's the flashy boots and the rugby brain that will prove their worth in the weeks to come for the Moyross man ready for the global audience.

Irish Independent