Friday 17 August 2018

'I'd say it was very emotional for Donnacha because when he was here...he's a Munster man, he's Munster mad'

Donnacha Ryan of Racing 92 consoles his former team-mate Keith Earls of Munster
Donnacha Ryan of Racing 92 consoles his former team-mate Keith Earls of Munster
Keith Earls is consoled by former Munster team-mate Donnacha Ryan after Racing’s victory on Sunday. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

You presume of all the places Keith Earls would rather be, nowhere near the top of the list would his choice be a Monday morning press gig, dungeon-deep in a Dublin Georgian house surrounded by the serried ranks of middle-aged media types hungry for spicy sausages and snappy lines.

Less than 24 hours after suffering his sixth European semi-final defeat with Munster, even his selection by his peers as one of the three nominees for the Zurich Players' Player of the Year gong is scant consolation for the desolation he feels.

"I haven't even seen my kids yet," he sighs, as his questioners freely spray ketchup and the witness freely dispenses answers to all who probe, neither side achieving any degree of realistic accuracy.

He will hold his girls later and forget that another year will go by without embracing the only other thing in life he wishes to cradle.

A sleepless Sunday night only reminded him of how close and how far Munster remain from rekindling their love affair with their Grail.

"You are awake thinking how and when and what can we do," he says. "You're wondering what and how this is after happening again."

So many questions, so few answers. In the fog of retribution, blame has been scatter-gunned in multiple directions.

Decide

The bald facts are that, for a second successive year, Munster did well enough to get so far but are not yet good enough to get further; only they can decide what the next season holds.

They will - they must - evolve.

And it will be a help if their coach doesn't decide to up sticks halfway through the season.

No European side in the history of the competition has managed to achieve Munster's level of success in these two seasons with such a cataclysmic recycling of coaching staff.

Read more here:

"I think since I have become a professional rugby player I haven't had a coach longer than two years," says Earls, nominated alongside Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and Tadhg Furlong for the Rugby Players' award.

"Look, there are all the excuses in the world and it is down to the players as well, but the important thing for us is to get consistency now with Johann van Graan ahead of next season.

"We have been through a lot. I don't know... do we think as players that all these bad things happen to us and is it just going to happen for us?

"I don't think it's that.

"If we can get some consistency with the coach and the coaching staff for six months, then we'll see.

"Johann hasn't even put his stamp on us yet. Obviously the next couple of weeks are going to be massive.

"And then the pre-season is going to be very important when it comes to Johann's game-plan and whatever he wants."

That, of course, was the plan last summer after another European semi-final where they fell far below the required standard - and in the PRO12 final - before Rassie Erasmus reneged on his commitment to stay with the province.

It seems like a familiar cop-out to offer him a bail-out. Judge you next year, then?

"Well if we get a trophy this year it's success," he reasons. "But everyone wants Europe and everyone in Munster wants Europe.

"And I think we have the squad and with good consistency, hopefully we can get a step closer.

"I just think we have to have a good look at ourselves, review everything and stop being bridesmaids."

Memory

We must remember too that Leinster may be outstanding in year three of Leo Cullen's reign but in year one, their European campaign was shambolic while last season their improvement still left them as distant from the title as Munster.

Leinster have addressed their issues; Munster must remedy theirs, chiefly an attacking game that falters when confronted by typically titanic French opposition.

Earls acknowledges this is an area where his team fell short.

"That's something we'll probably have to go back and look for. We've been to two semi-finals now and a final last year and we probably might need to evolve a small bit when we get into the latter stages of competitions.

"Because you are playing against the top two or three teams in Europe and in the PRO14 as well. Look, I haven't reviewed it either.

"I know there was a lot of simple mistakes that we usually don't make, inaccurate passes and poor clean-outs, and that's something we have to look at as a whole team and not as individuals."

Dark irony visited him in the dressing-room on Sunday; he and Donnacha Ryan were in the Munster squad that last lifted the title a decade ago.

Now the Nenagh man is 80 minutes away but to Earls, it must seem a world away.

"I'd find it hard for anyone to beat Leinster. Hopefully it will be a good game and I don't care who wins it."

The Racing bag-man had to rescue Ryan as the pair drowned in their feelings.

"Casey Laulala came in as well. With Munster you'll always feel a part of it. I'd say it was very emotional for Donnacha because when he was here...he's a Munster man, he's Munster mad.

"When we got to the semi-finals he's thinking this team can win something. Then unfortunately he left.

"He loved the squad we had. He was the older fella and he was constantly coaching the younger lads. I think he felt like it was his team.

"Things didn't work out with his negotiations. It was a surreal feeling for him and it was weird playing against him as well. He's like a big brother to a lot of us.

"I genuinely think he did feel sorry for us. It's going to be a tough task for him against Leinster.

Leinster will be massive favourites going in there but Donnacha has knowledge as well so you just wouldn't know.

"He is a man on a mission himself. He's got goals."

Earls still has, too.

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