Sport Rugby

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Earls must remain in wings

Limerick man's dazzling form before recent injury underlines why giving him a wide berth is best ploy for Munster

Keith Earls
Keith Earls
David Kelly

David Kelly

It seemed oddly appropriate for those who have followed the progress of Keith Earls that a declaration of glad tidings should drop from the sunny skies at the precise moment a dark cloud gathered overhead.

As we understand it, Earls had already penned his new contract last week before Munster completed their romp through the last untroubled stages of Heineken Cup qualification.

It was with the grimmest irony, then, that Munster fans watched last Sunday as he tumbled out of the fray with yet another knee injury, this time one that may be serious enough to rule him out of a significant chunk of spring's international action.

Even though his season had already featured two disruptions due to knee trouble - his November series was a write-off too - the Moyross man had in between times produced his most irresistible spell of form in some time.

Having significantly bulked up during the summer, Earls was a potent force on his province's right wing as Rob Penney belatedly fused the elements required to produce the best from his side. Perhaps this burst of impressive displays infected Earls - or more probably, those close to him - with the necessary hubris to suggest that London Irish may fling some of their new-found largess his way.

Whatever, Earls was always more likely than not to remain with Munster, at once establishing the collective squad faith in Penney's modus operandi, as well as binning a raft of the much over-used 'Flight of the Earls' headlines.

It would have been difficult to countenance an English club - mercifully, Earls' name wasn't attached to the hyper-inflated French rumour mill - being willing to pay the likely €300,000 necessary to turn his head.

After earning approximately €280,000 from his last deal, you can bet Mourad Boudjellal's bottom euro that he will not be recouping near that figure for his next contract, which is likely to dip somewhere south of €250,000.

That is the price paid for a litany of unfortunate injuries which have clouded the form of a player who, in 2009, was correctly deemed sufficiently threatening to travel on a Lions tour.

That he wasn't perhaps ready for such an awesome appointment is a moot point; suffice to say there have been more low points in his career than highlights since that summer.

An endless debate about which back-line position suited him best compounded difficulties with form and fitness; Earls' earnest pleas to be considered as a centre were refreshingly honest, even if the subsequent evidence was rarely compelling.

The moment last season against Scotland when Earls failed to combine with Brian O'Driscoll, causing the former Irish captain to visibly berate his colleague, seemed to sum up the difficulty in augmenting his many talents with a consistent ability to deploy peripheral vision.

Before that game, where the occasional full-back had returned to the wing for the 20th time in 36 Tests, Earls spoke about his still latent midfield ambitions. "I was disappointed not to be starting against Wales, but when Declan Kidney spoke to me he hadn't even considered me for the wing," he said.

"He had considered me as a centre, which was kind of good, but I was still disappointed not to start. I am willing to play anywhere.

"The thing that I have struggled with was my confidence. That is the thing that was holding me back for four years."

It has taken him time to realise that his inability to match his own increasingly high expectations was a factor in this ongoing struggle with confidence. He has to realistically and honestly reassess his ambitions.

This season, perhaps, it has been accepted that his future is best served as a right-winger; certainly, his consistent displays there for Munster this season frank this claim with authority.

"He's had to overcome some adversities," said Penney. "He's had some injury issues and he's been selected when he's probably been underdone in terms of being able to perform well because of the injuries and tried to box on through those things. He had a great off-season. He had a shoulder operation, he's rehabbed brilliantly, he does look bigger.

"He's someone who has just got a truckload of talent and now he's moving into a cycle of life where hopefully he can really unleash himself."

While Earls experienced a summer of rehab and bonding with daughter Ella, his old left-wing berth had been assumed by Simon Zebo, who became the 2013 Lions breakthrough act that his team-mate had been in 2009.

DEPARTURE

Doug Howlett's retirement opened the door to the No 14 jersey for Earls; one hopes that the impending departure of Casey Laulala will not entertain another unsettling period in the Limerick man's career.

Still just 26, he has achieved a degree of certainty in terms of what team he will play for until after the next World Cup. It would be to his ultimate benefit were he to maintain a similar degree of assurance as to what role he continues to play for his team.

"It's six years now talking about positions, so I want to put it to bed and let myself get back to playing rugby," he said last August. "In my first season with Munster I had nothing on my mind only to play rugby and I ended up scoring something like 10 tries. I want to get back to something like that."

As his latest fitness woe demonstrates, Earls is a player who truly prospers when injury-free and liberated from positional ambiguity.

Anyone who is an admirer of both his raw pace and dazzling footwork can only wish that he achieves both these wishes over the duration of the next few weeks and months.

HOPE FOR HEINEKEN CUP

The Six Nations Council has held "constructive talks" over the future of European club rugby, but appeared to rule out the possibility of a Rugby Champions Cup.

The latest round of talks in the dispute over the Heineken Cup featured representatives from the English, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, French and Italian unions.

The English and French clubs served notice in August 2012 that they would not continue in competitions run by ERC from the end of this season. But a French U-turn and IRB rules appear to have left the future of European rugby at an impasse.

The Council's statement read: "(We) had a constructive meeting today and remain committed to finding a Six Nations solution for European rugby in the best interests of the game.

"The Council also reaffirmed its commitment to abide by IRB regulations."

Irish Independent

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