Sunday 22 April 2018

'You can see it in CJ Stander, they're angry men, physical men. We are going to get a bit of abuse'

Keith Earls is a different player to the cub who found himself among Lions in South Africa

Keith Earls is a different player to the cub who found himself among Lions in South Africa. Photo: Billy Stickland/INPHO
Keith Earls is a different player to the cub who found himself among Lions in South Africa. Photo: Billy Stickland/INPHO
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In the summer of 2009, with all of 90 minutes of Test rugby under his belt, Keith Earls set off on the Lions tour to South Africa. He wasn't quite in the bolter class, but plenty of people would not have had him in their squad when the second-guessing game was being played in parlours all over Britain and Ireland.

Being young and a bit naive, Earls absorbed the doubts that had been aired about his selection. He didn't appreciate that while by then the Lions had become a juggernaut, it was still driven by parochial concerns. From each of the four countries you had supporters wanting first and foremost for their men to make the plane.

Earls was selected for the first game, against a crowd called the Royal XV, and in front of not very many spectators he gave a less-than-regal performance. When you drop pretty much your first attacking ball on a Lions tour - which effectively is a series of ruthless auditions en route to the Test series - it can be a long trip. For Keith Earls, it was just that: he took the bad stuff on board and it dragged him down.

"Yeah, I did," he says. "That's all about growing up as well, isn't it? To be honest that's maybe why I'm a lot more consistent now. My form - I haven't tuned into anything. I barely tune into what's going on in the world, never mind what's going on in sport. The greatest advice my father gave is: 'It's all about what's between the four walls at home.' That's all that matters.

"Sure it was ridiculous. I was only a 21-year-old going down with legends of the game I would have watched growing up. It was nearly a state of questioning whether I deserved to be there or not. I hadn't played too many Tests and that's where I lost my confidence rather than embracing it and thinking: 'I'm good enough to be here'. I showed in one or two games that I was, but I'd nowhere near the knowledge back then that I do now."

The theme of this trip inevitably will be about a war on two fronts: first there is the battle with fatigue, in a season that started nearly 12 months ago; then there is the three Test series with the Springboks. For Earls, the 2014/'15 season ended with defeat for Munster to Glasgow in the Pro12 final on May 30.

Keith Earls in action for the Lions in 2009
Keith Earls in action for the Lions in 2009

He then had a four-week break, which in the real world actually means a week to 10 days of crashing out, followed by a few weeks of keeping the body ticking over. At any time it's not a great idea to report for pre-season looking like a blimp. In a World Cup season it's unthinkable.

Luke Fitzgerald will flourish for province and country if he can stay injury-free Photo: Sportsfile
Luke Fitzgerald in action for Leinster

So you can expect carnage on this tour. Between Luke Fitzgerald, Rob and Dave Kearney, and Johnny Sexton, the withdrawal process is already well under way, and before Ireland get to the third Test, in Port Elizabeth, the toll will be nearing double figures. If Earls can keep his current run going however - two-and-a-half seasons out of the Ireland scene but now a solid, fit season behind him - he won't be among them.

"Yeah I'm great," he says. "We'll be going playing nearly 16 months solid (since he came back from injury) by the end of the tour but I feel great. You're out there with the boys every week and you're feeding off the boys' energy and it gets you through a lot of things. It's a lot better than being in a room rehabbing on your own. It's probably more tiring than playing every week. It's just great being in and around the lads in the team environment."

His appetite for it all has only been sharpened by the chore of having to watch Leinster, Ulster and Connacht enjoy the business end of the season, while Munster were marking time until they could break up two weeks ago. An opportunity for CJ Stander to remind the wing that not much will have changed in South Africa since Earls was on the touchline in Loftus, getting a bit of attention from the crowd.

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CJ Stander in action for Munster. Photo credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Munster's CJ Stander

"Yeah it's Blue Bulls country," Earls says. "You can see it in CJ, they're angry men, physical men. They don't care how they're going to win and they'll do whatever it takes to win. And their supporters seem to be like that as well. We were getting a bit of abuse. It's a challenge: if you can get a win down there in that environment you've achieved something big."

The upside for Munster's Ireland contingent over the last month has been the chance to train hard without the physical and emotional toll of it all going wrong on the Saturday. So Earls is in good nick and raring to go.

"It was a small bit more relaxing," he says of the end-of-season game gap. "Speaking to the boys, it's been a hell of a long year but hopefully we can go down and not only win a game but win a series. They're crazy people (South Africans), passionate people. They love their rugby. It's a beautiful country and a really exciting place to go. I was only a child going down there in '09 so hopefully I can learn from all my experiences in the last few years and be a better player going down this time.

"It's going to be physical and it's going to be hostile and the thing is not to go into our shell a bit. They came third in the World Cup and they're one of the best teams in the world. I suppose we can't let that get to us. We have to back ourselves as well - (look at) what Ireland has achieved in the last couple of years. We've beaten them once or twice and (we need to) bring that same mentality heading down there."

To accentuate the difference for Earls between 2009 and 2016, he won't have Paul O'Connell around for guidance. Along with Ronan O'Gara, O'Connell has been the go-to man for Earls when he was struggling with the weight of it all. His new roommate is from the other end of the emotional spectrum.

"Yeah I'm in with Mur (Conor Murray) now," he says. "It's a lot more relaxed with him, he's one of these fellas who floats through the air. He's very relaxed for a fella who's probably one of the best nines in the world. He listens to his music before games, he just doesn't feel pressure. With Paulie being captain he had so much pressure on him, and being the talisman on lots of teams he played with, he always had that type of pressure. He's was always anxious and I'd be trying to relax him a bit. Now it's the opposite way around with Mur - he's trying to relax me. Paul had his ways, but he got the job done so I wasn't going to change him."

Andy Farrell, Ireland's new defence coach, reckons that most players get just one chance to tour South Africa - in which case they need to make the most of it. Earls is one of the exceptions. He will be an altogether different animal to the young fella who toured in 2009.

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