Keith Earls relishing status as father figure
Keith Earls bounces into Munster's University of Limerick base. Sleeping well? "Like a log," he grins.
Little Ella-Maye Earls slept 10 hours on Monday night. Four months old, you guess? "Exactly," he says. In such a short space of time, her's has already been a tumultuous life.
Little Ella-Maye's early days were viewed though an intense prism of national scrutiny, as post-birth complications forced the Munster centre out of Ireland's opening Six Nations clash against Wales, while the new-born remained in hospital care.
Four months on, the new father can satisfactorily report that his and Edel's daughter has much improved health, as the 24-year-old revels in the novel responsibility of parenthood.
"She's the best sleeper," he tells you. "Ten hours a night. All the other lads are jealous!
"It's strange. You feel so protective when she comes out. Then she gets sick and she can't even tell you what's wrong. I've never felt so much love in my life, that day when she finally came out.
"Thankfully she's grand now and it's nothing too serious. She has a few conditions but nothing serious, she's going to live a normal life."
Earls, a noted arch-critic of his own professional performances on the pitch, was now suddenly alerted to a fresh sense of personal perspective away from sporting combat. Life had suddenly grabbed him by the lapels.
"The responsibility is huge," he admits. "You know that she's going to have to count on you until she's 21, or the rest of your life really. I never got it when the others lads around here would say it to me. But it's the best feeling in the world.
"It changes your perspective on everything. I've matured a bit. I still like to have the craic with the lads, don't get me wrong. But I love spending time with her, you know, bringing her over to the other players' houses and that. It's just pride, having your own kid. It's great."
It's not only fatherhood that has matured him.
Following on from the retirements of Alan Quinlan and John Hayes last season, the departures of Mick O'Driscoll, Jerry Flannery and David Wallace from the Munster dressing-room have imperceptibly marked Earls down as a senior citizen of this squad.
Although a 2009 Lions tourist and World Cup starter, it had become familiar to tag Earls as one of the "younger brigade". Not any more.
"Yeah, that's only really hit me in the last few weeks," he agrees. "Especially in the back-line when I'm looking around and all I see is young lads. When I first came in, Christian Cullen and Trevor Halstead were here, you had John Kelly and that.
"I suppose there's still a few older heads around, which helps. They're vocal, whereas I like to keep things to myself. But maybe I'll have to start coming out of my shell a little bit and start demanding things, you know? The way Ronan O'Gara and Dougie Howlett do.
"It's something I gradually need to do. I've only just really started talking in the meetings with the backs. There's no point in Rog and Dougie talking all the time. I know what some of the younger lads might be feeling, so gradually I've started speaking a little more.
"Still, it is quite strange going home and realising at 24, I'm one of the older guys in the backs. I guess it's exciting I'm one of the leaders now. When Rog comes to me and asks me stuff, it's exciting for me."
Becoming more obviously the centre of attention, he hopes, will allow him to fulfil his dreams of maintaining a Munster and Ireland career in the centre. Yet there are caveats.
He admits he hasn't really been fully fit since the World Cup, since when he has deputised proficiently for Brian O'Driscoll in the Ireland jersey, improving his defence, while at Munster he points out his self-confessed dodgy distribution skills have radically improved this term.
"I'd been eating hospital food and I wasn't that strong. If I was super fit, perhaps I could have helped Ireland get a trophy. Hopefully I can get a chance to do that in the future."
He wants to become the best centre in the world. Trouble is, the current holder of that moniker, O'Driscoll, once again will bar his way this summer.
"Seeing him come back is great for the country," Earls says. "He's looking super fit, which is worrying. Is he ever going to pack it in?
"Ah no, I'm delighted for him. He's had an unbelievable career and nothing would surprise me if he goes on for another four years. He looks really lean, a serious athlete after getting slagged for so many years about his weight.
"I know there's talk about him being moved to 12, but you have Gordon D'Arcy still playing some serious rugby there. Who knows? I'd prefer to play in the centre. I'd swallow my pride if I have to play on the wing, anything for the team.
"I'll just have to brush up on the videos and learn how to play on the wing again."
Besides himself, he desperately wants Munster to return to the centre of attention, particularly with Euro 2012 fever about to grip his home city.
"I remember the World Cup in 2002, everyone watching the matches in the pubs, watching Robbie Keane's last-minute equaliser against Germany with my father.
"Whenever there's soccer, you know every Joe Soap watches soccer, not everyone loves rugby. There'll be a huge buzz around it.
"It's been disappointing for me with Munster. We've won leagues but not appeared in a Heineken Cup final in my time. They were successful in Europe when I was growing up but I was a couple of years off it.
"Sometimes I get bitter about it. But it makes me want to kick on and try to return Munster to where they belong. We clicked against Northampton but didn't repeat it. I don't know what it is. We're just falling short. We need to analyse how we can get better.
"The defeat to Ulster was the worst I ever felt in my life. It was strange. I just went into a really depressed mode afterwards."
Whatever happens on the field though, Ella-Maye always ensures the smile returns to his face.