Thursday 23 January 2020

'People need to stop comparing us to old Munster' - Exasperated Earls focused on the future

Exasperated Earls focused on the future instead of living in the past. Photo: Sportsfile
Exasperated Earls focused on the future instead of living in the past. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Maybe the old ball player Sparky Anderson nailed a home run when asked about the folly of chasing faded memories as one tries to plot a forward path.

"I've got my faults," he told us, "but living in the past isn't one of them - there's no future in it."

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And then we heard Donncha O'Callaghan making an interesting point on radio and the fact that it was him making it, and on national radio too, made it even more thought-provoking.

He was talking about the fact that he had travelled to and from Munster's Heineken Champions Cup clash in Paris on the team charter and that, in his eyes, the travelling supporters were all the familiar faces he recognised from the time he started regularly making these journeys at the start of this century.

The way he related it was almost as if it were a trip back in time for all of them - it certainly wasn't a glance at a bright future, yet.

O'Callaghan wasn't the only ex-player mixing with the team and supporters on the team flight home. although the former Ireland lock wasn't officially on media duty, he wore a team suit in his guise as a club ambassador.

He is usually a pundit, as most retired Irish professionals seem to be these days; the media scrum to point out Munster's manifold mis-steps has been a fiercely contested affair for some time now.

Keith Earls is the mildest mannered man on the western side of the Shannon, but even he seems faintly exasperated.

The way he sees it is, Europe may be no more by this Sunday but, after gaining winning positions with barely minutes to go in successive away ties against multiple European champions Saracens and moneybags Racing, the margins are too thin to lay it on thick about the good old days.

"It is amazing," says the Irish winger who will mark the beginning of what will be an impressive 13th calendar year when incoming Ireland coach Andy Farrell names him in his inaugural Six Nations squad today.

"That is the standard people expect of a Munster team. Over Christmas we probably did embarrass ourselves up in Ulster by our performance.

"Leinster are Leinster, they are a quality side. Losing at home was very disappointing. But at the weekend, we were in it for 71 minutes and had we handled the game a bit better, if one or two decisions went our way, then it would be a different story.

"But with Munster we are just not used to losing three in a row. People just need to stop comparing us to the old Munster as well.

"They compare us to a very successful era. The game has evolved since then and the difference in rugby is completely different to what it was back then.

"It moves on every year, the attack quality, the defence quality, it all shifts every year."

The argument is that Munster haven't evolved, or at least haven't done so as quickly as they should have.

Constant transition, some of it obviously involuntary, hasn't helped as they aim to bridge the now 12-year gap to their last title. It took them 11 years to win their first.

"The gap now is a bit longer for us," says Earls who can paradoxically claim to be one of the erstwhile legends given he claimed a winners' medal in '08.

"But how many heartaches did they have before they won one? They had the memory of being in two finals and a couple of semi-finals before they actually won it in 2006.

"It started in 1995 but from then on, 1998 and 1999, 2000, 2002 they were always there or thereabouts and it was probably the same for them.

"But the fact was that no one had done it before them and the expectation was only to be seen to get into a semi-final and a final. But now it is completely different for us."

History has a way of casting its shadow, so too has the present.

The old fogeys also remember the days when the men in red were used to regularly beating several shades of brown stuff out of Leinster types.

Those days are gone, too. And with it the hurt is another reason for lament.

"It probably is," agrees Earls before asking, answering and then dismissing his own question in one frustrated breath.

"And why is that? I suppose a bigger pool to look at as well with the players. It is no excuse but we definitely should be up there with them.

"We have a young enough group and some new lads coming in. A new coaching staff and hopefully starting this weekend we can kick on again."

There is an outside chance Munster can still progress but even the official tournament organisers don't seem to give them much of a prayer, deeming it "divine intervention" if they can accumulate all the good luck they require to make the unlikeliest of escapes.

"People actually don't realise that with the World Cup, then Steve Bortwhick and Graham Rowntree coming in, Johann (van Graan) and his coaching staff had five games where they could pick their full-strength team.

"Five games under a new philosophy. Five games is still a short time to start beating the likes of Saracens and Racing.

"Hopefully we can put in a good performance this weekend and keep building because that is what it is all about. It is not even about playing for fans.

"It is about us getting better as rugby players and playing for each other and trying to push ourselves forward. The fans are exceptional anyway, they will always come out for us no matter what.

"We have been in worse case scenarios but all we can do is go for a win. It is out of our hands then."

No time for looking back.

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