Sunday 17 December 2017

'We're only nine months down the road on this journey'

The Big Interview: Keith Earls

Keith Earls: ‘Lions selection wasn’t going through my head. There is unbelievable competition for wingers and back three.’ Photo: Sportsfile
Keith Earls: ‘Lions selection wasn’t going through my head. There is unbelievable competition for wingers and back three.’ Photo: Sportsfile

Daragh Small

The events of October have been a constant reminder to this Munster team that there is more to life than sport.

It made the Champions Cup exit to Saracens almost bearable, and the fans gave their team the perfect send-off afterwards.

But this new-look Munster team is on a journey, and although there are a few experienced heads front and centre, they have a very low age-profile in their squad.

Losing to Saracens was nothing to be ashamed off - the reigning European and English Premiership champions will go very close to securing back-to-back Champions Cups next month.

From a competitive point of view, the players were distraught to leave the field, out of European competition for 2016-'17. But life goes on, and they will be back, bigger and stronger next season.

Ireland international winger Keith Earls took it all in his stride, and in a career where injury has often threatened his chances of reaching his potential, the 29-year-old is at peace with where his team are towards the end of this season.

But off the field is where his heart lies, and the Limerick native is a devoted family man first and foremost.

"I am just tipping away being a family man. That's what keeps me going. That's my main priority. As I said last week, I am a father and husband first, and then a rugby player. Sometimes sport can take over a fella's life," says Earls.

"It's not like I have forgotten about rugby or sport, but there are definitely things outside of the pitch that mean more to me than rugby. And I am just concentrating on that."

Earls, a Heineken Cup winner with Munster in 2008, has played 136 times for his native province and scored 37 tries. But there haven't been too many occasions like last weekend's experience in Dublin.

"The Glasgow game was different for obvious reasons. But to have 40-odd thousand Munster people in the Aviva. It was incredible, the place was rocking, and it was definitely up there with the top two or three experiences I have had.

"You are completely focused. You get used to it as you get older. But it was a constant sea of red. It was there for the 80 minutes and even when the game got away from us the fans were still singing. It was an unbelievable game and atmosphere but it was disappointing to lose.

"But there is definitely no regrets there because we were beaten by the better team. A team who were a long way down the journey that we are looking to go on as well. They are six or seven years down the line, and we are only nine months."

Everything about that semi-final smacked of Munster's European performances from the early 2000s. Valiant in defeat, with a support base that never gave in.

Potential

Munster have the potential to reach the levels that Saracens are playing at right now, but Earls knows it will take some time to peak like his team-mates did at Cardiff in 2008.

"There is a lot of young lads coming through now. Back in the old days with Munster you had Claw, Gaillimh, and Axel and all of these lads.

"Then with ROG, Donners, Strings and Paulie and these guys breaking through it took them a couple of years and a bit of heartache but eventually they got there.

"For the likes of some of our young lads, Rory Scannell and the boys are starting to mature well and quick. Hopefully within the next few years we will be standing on a podium in Europe.

"But we learnt a lot from that semi-final. We went up against the best in Europe. They did the double last year. Our game-plan worked for 50 minutes. We tried to play them at their own game.

"They are further down the line with a lot more experience. They scored a good few tries, and we were lucky when they dropped a few balls on the last pass as well. But we dug deep for as long as we could."

And that final four defeat isn't the end of Munster's season. Their league form has been outstanding in 2016-'17, and a potential all-Irish final is still on the horizon.

"The Pro12 is massive to try and get a bit of silverware. It's the only competition now where we are alive in. It would be great from the season that we had, to lift a bit of silverware at the end of it.

"But we are growing really quickly. It's nine months into Rassie, Jacques and Felix's first season. With what happened to Axel to this year, I still think we would be on the same path. There's good things to come from this team."

And just a week on from the announcement of the British and Irish Lions squad, the 59-time-capped Ireland winger, isn't dwelling on the fact that he missed out on another tour.

Instead he is looking forward to a summer tour with Ireland, if the call comes, when Joe Schmidt's side travel to the USA for one game and then to Japan for a couple of matches.

"Lions selection wasn't going through my head. A lot of the lads would be saying they wouldn't be thinking about it.

"Genuinely, it popped into my head once or twice last week, but there is unbelievable competition for wingers and back three.

"I struggled at the start of the season with some back issues. I gave it everything in this Six Nations. I struggled a small bit after the Six Nations.

"But thankfully now it is starting to pick up. All I can do is keep the head down and concentrate on the Pro12, and try and get a medal at the end of the season."

Irish Independent

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