Kidney faces anxious wait on Earls
KEITH EARLS, Munster and Irish rugby face an anxious wait with the 22-year-old scheduled to undergo a scan on his ankle injury next Monday.
The Ireland and Lions international sustained the injury during a Munster training session last Monday in a non-contact situation and, while the initial X-ray thankfully showed no break, the level of swelling means further examination cannot take place until early next week.
The bulk of the Irish rugby media were in Cardiff on Tuesday for the launch of the Magners League season when news began to filter through of Earls' latest setback and concern was not helped by misleading reports regarding the serious nature of the incident and where it had occurred. The confusion did not nothing to allay the sense of unease surrounding the well-being of one of the country's most gifted players, who has been battling a groin injury since spring, which had already placed his early-season availability in doubt.
Twelve months out from the World Cup, the Limerick man's importance to Irish rugby cannot be overstated. The game's seemingly ceaseless tinkering with rules and interpretations over the past number of seasons has led to a less structured brand of rugby and a game where players blessed with Earls' ability to conjure avenues out of apparent dead-ends are invaluable.
Since first making his mark with Munster a couple of seasons ago, Earls has proven to be a genuine game-breaker, with a wit and colour that stands out in the muscle-bound, monochrome of the modern game. Those seeking evidence need look no further than the YouTube clip chronicling his wonder try for Munster against the Dragons in September 2008 (when he chipped the ball into his hands in full flight).
With the ability to play wing, centre and full-back, Earls is a major part of Declan Kidney's World Cup plans. Luke Fitzgerald's return to fitness is good news for the national coach, as was Andrew Trimble's excellent form on Ireland's difficult summer tour, but Kidney will want Earls available in New Zealand 2011, as his spark could prove critical in the decisive pool game against Australia -- just as Quade Cooper's was for the Wallabies in their narrow victory last June.
Thus, the worry surrounding his latest injury. For a player whose international career could still be described as 'fledgling,' another body-blow just as he was making his way back from the groin problem that precluded an opportunity to take on Cooper and Co in Brisbane is the last thing anybody needed.
The nature of that groin injury meant Earls had to be micro-managed last season, a one-week on, one-week off situation designed to provide sufficient recovery and protection. As well as the groin and ankle injuries, Earls has also had to battle problems with his shoulder in his short career -- notably when a typically enormous South African prop fell on him during the Lions tour opener against the Royal XV in 2009.
Injuries have been part and parcel of rugby since Webb Ellis first cheated at soccer, but have become increasingly prevalent as the game has broken new ground in terms of physical size and attrition -- and the stats back that up. An Australian study showed that in the amateur days there was a rate of 47 injuries per 1,000 player hours which increased to 74 per 1000 hours in the professional era. A survey done in the 2006/07 season showed 33pc of the contracted players in the English Premiership were on the injured list at that time -- a staggering amount.
Ankle sprains are among the top five rugby injuries, together with hamstring strains, head injuries, clavicular joint sprains and thumb dislocations, while it is also common for players to hurt themselves in summer training through a combination of hard grounds and pre-season eagerness. The situation is not helped by players' determination to play through pain thereby subjecting themselves to further damage.
"The rugby player mentality is they get injured, that's part of the game, and they carry on playing," says former Wales and Lions flanker Colin Charvis.
"There is debate about whether our sport is becoming too fast and physical," notes Scotland second-row Alastair Kellock. "But I love the physical nature of the sport. Yes, players are getting bigger, but if you change the game too much you risk damaging it and I don't believe any of us want that."
No matter how big players become, the 6ft 8ins, 18-stone Kellock can hold his own, just as Charvis did in his playing days, standing well over six feet and weighing around 16 stone.
Earls cannot compete with the leviathans of the game. By normal standards, the Moyross man, at 5ft 11ins and 14 stone, is not small but, in rugby terms, he is slight and it makes him vulnerable, particularly as he is not a player to shirk from any physical challenge.
"With the load going through my body, the (groin) injury was bound to come," said Earls last month. "The physios are telling me that my body is not fully developed yet, my pelvis and core are still developing and my body is not quite strong enough yet for the workload I have been going through."
There are plenty of examples of prodigiously talented players whose careers were bedevilled by injury. Ireland flanker Eric Miller won 48 caps between 1997 and 2005 and would have won many more -- including Test starts for the Lions -- but for consistent injury problems. Jonny Wilkinson was unavailable to play for England for 1,169 days after steering them to the World Cup in 2003 as he reeled from a succession of blows to his knee, arm, shoulder and kidney.
It should be the fervent hope of everyone with a vested interest in Irish rugby that Earls' career does not continue to be characterised by time on the treatment table and that this gifted young player is afforded a sustained run of fitness. It starts with a scan on Monday.