'Ninja' Earls happy to plough his own furrow in search of more finishing touches
Winger in form of his life after heeding lessons from Paul O’Connell, writes Ruaidhri O’Connor
Looking down at the warm-ups at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday, it was curious to note the outlier in the Munster ranks.
Twenty-two players raced around, resplendent in red, but Keith Earls was the man in black.
He went on to be his team's best performer over 80 minutes of razor-sharp wing-play. He scored two excellent tries and was denied a third through no fault of his own.
At 30 and after less than two weeks pre-season, it was impressive stuff and Earls puts it down to being comfortable in his own skin.
His gym sessions last 150pc longer than most of the young lads, but involve far fewer weights. He warms up to his own beat, wears his preferred gear. It works for him and, in turn, his team.
There was a time when he wouldn't put his head above the parapet and would do the assigned drills, but he learnt from watching Paul O'Connell get the most out of his long career.
Everything down to the gear he's wearing while warming-up goes into the performance.
"It's just what you're comfortable in, I feel right in that. I feel like I get a better sweat on, my muscles are just constantly warm," he explains.
"I suppose a lot of it is about how you feel, your confidence.
"It's gas, the lads were calling me the ninja below. I always do it, I like warming up in it. I rarely do a warm-up with the lads. It's not being ignorant that I want to do my own thing, it's just that I know what works for me.
"The physio and the lads are happy with that, it's something I got from Paul as well - I'd see him warming up in the corner.
"Because if I don't warm up properly I don't feel good and something could happen.
"In the Aviva I won't come to the field and warm up, I'll obviously come out for the team warm-up, but I do my individual stuff inside.
"I like to be inside, keeping warm. It's not like I'm frightened of the cold, but if there's a stadium where I can warm up inside I'll do it.
"It just gets the muscles firing.
"I'm not disrespecting the lads, I'd love to be with those fellas 24/7 and be able to do everything that they're doing.
"But if I do that then I'm not going to be right for the weekend.
"All the boys appreciate that, if anything the boys will be slagging me. Some of my gym sessions are two-and-a-half hours long, they float in and out and do their hour.
"A lot of my stuff is getting the body right, a lot of rehab stuff. I don't lift much weights anymore, it just didn't agree with me.
"That's the only downside, I'd love to be able to do the weights but I only do bits and pieces now.
"I'm a rugby player, not a body builder. I just want to stay quick. Ideally, I'd love to be 100kg and quick; unfortunately I can't be.
"If I can get all of my mechanics working well and be lighter weight then I'm happy with that."
Earls roomed with his fellow Young Munster man O'Connell for years and used the time wisely.
They still bump into one another regularly, albeit in different circumstances.
"I meet him mostly now in the schoolyard when we're dropping the kids and we'd have a chat. It's gas," he says.
"I had notebooks when I was rooming with him and I'd always jot down stuff he'd say to me and I'd go back and read them.
"He knew I had notebooks, but he wouldn't be thinking I'd be writing down what he'd be saying.
"He's always on the end of the phone as well."
A picture of perpetual movement on the pitch, Earls says he barely sits still at home or at work either.
Everything he does is targeted at getting the most out of his body when it comes to the weekend.
"It's just doing whatever it is to get the one per cent," he says.
"We've meetings in here and I struggle with back issues, posture and I get spasms in the chest and the stomach but I've a chair now in Felix (Jones)'s room that I bring into meetings and to help with posture.
"I don't sit down at home anymore, I'm either trigger-pointing or rolling around on the ground. I've something in my car to keep my back in good shape.
"Then it's just fiddling around with diet and stuff, as a young-fella I was too ignorant to see things like that.
"Travelling and rooming with Paul a lot helped me to see the things you can do to get your body right as you get a bit older to help you have a longer career and have better health as well."
Despite spending less time lifting weights, power has never been an issue for Earls who is a tenacious defender blessed with speed off the mark.
The simple explanation could be that his father, Ger, was a ferocious flanker in his day but there's more to it.
"My mother is a strong woman as well," says Earls, but only half in jest. "I don't know, when I was growing up and even in the Academy I naturally always had a lot of power, natural power.
"I always did well in power scores, things like that, maybe it was from jumping walls in Moyross years ago, I don't know."
Earls is now the last remaining link to Munster's last European success in 2008.
He was an unused replacement in Cardiff on the day O'Connell lifted the old Heineken Cup. Seventeen of the match-day squad have retired, the other four are plying their trade elsewhere.
Munster return to the startline tomorrow afternoon in Castres, aware of their history but determined to write a new chapter. The province's European legend was built in the south of France.
"People made their names down there, going down to tough places and producing man of the match performances, winning down there," Earls explains.
"We can thrive in the future but there's a lot of different personalities now in the squad and we've to figure out our way of how to win down there.
"It's hard not to keep going back to what Munster have done years ago. They won it their way and we've to try and win it ours.
"Some of the players they had back then, we don't have them players anymore. Someone is not going to be like the Paul O'Connell, Alan Quinlan or Ronan O'Gara - you're not just born with it.
"You can't turn into someone else. We've to find our own identity, from a Munster standard anything without trophies is a poor season, but we have to be realistic too.
"We got to a semi-final in Europe and then a final last season, that's good progress and hopefully we'll go a step further this year."
All of that was achieved despite the heartbreak of losing head coach Anthony Foley a year ago on Monday.
"If you can get through last year as a rugby player you can get through anything in life," Earls recalls.
"I felt pressure going off my shoulders when Axel died, when it came to big games I used to get very nervous but that just put things into perspective.
"That Glasgow game the day after we buried him, obviously I got the red card, but if you can handle pressure in that environment with what was on the line, his legacy and winning for him then you've nothing else to worry about.
"This time last year was the last week he was alive, it's in the back of your head.
"He is always in our thoughts and if we could hear him now, he'd tell us just to get on with it. 'Forget about me and get on with it, show what you can do'.
"It is a sad time, it's his family we think about. It's going to be a sad couple of weeks for them. All we can do now is our best to keep his legacy going."
He couldn't cap a fine personal campaign with a place on the Lions tour and admits he was "a bit sickened" to miss out on selection.
Instead, he went to the United States and Japan with Ireland and found himself the senior man.
Suddenly, others were jotting down his words in their notebooks and following his lead.
"It's weird, because half the time inside my brain I still feel like a young fella," he insists, with a wry smile on his face. "I still want to learn, I'm looking around for people to learn off and the number of people seems to be getting smaller and smaller.
"There's fellas coming up to me and asking me stuff, but I'm still learning a lot off them."
Given the form he's in, they could do worse than follow the man in black's lead.
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