Thursday 19 July 2018

Comment: The players' player Keith Earls beats all-comers to cap season to remember

Earls' fellow professionals have recognised his consistently stunning form with top award

Keith Earls goes over to score a try against Edinburgh in their PRO14 semi-final. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Keith Earls goes over to score a try against Edinburgh in their PRO14 semi-final. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

In the 16 seasons it has existed, there has surely never been a more competitive field for the Rugby Players Ireland (formerly IRUPA) Player of the Year award.

And there may never have been a more fitting recipient, for Keith Earls is the players' player.

The Munster winger with the Zurich Players’ Player of the Year award last night. Photo credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy
The Munster winger with the Zurich Players’ Player of the Year award last night. Photo credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

The Moyross man's nature means that he would have been uncomfortable last night as he donned his dress suit and took the plaudits, but in the fullness of time he will appreciate this recognition of his consistent excellence over the course of an unforgettable season.

If you're going to win the player of the year award, you'd choose a season in which Ireland won a Grand Slam, a host of your team-mates went on the Lions tour and two provinces reached the Champions Cup semi-final as a good time to do it.

Leinster's triumph in Bilbao came too late in the campaign for consideration, but there were credible cases to be made for Johnny Sexton and Tadhg Furlong - who were both nominated - as well as Dan Leavy whose form since December has been exceptional.

No one could have argued if the professionals had opted to extend Conor Murray's reign at the top after another influential year.

Cian Healy had a stunning return to form, Jacob Stockdale - who won the Young Player award - was a record-breaker, James Ryan has yet to lose a game, Bundee Aki was outstanding and collected the fans' gong, Iain Henderson was outstanding and Rob Kearney has been a model of consistency.

Curious

Awards are curious beasts - the roll of honour for this one boasts the name of Nick Williams, who won in 2013, but Sexton and Ronan O'Gara are some of the big names conspicuous by their absence.

Come the end of the year, it is unlikely that Earls will be up for the big World Rugby gong, whereas Sexton and Murray might get the nod. But across the four professional dressing-rooms in this country his achievements have carried the day.

In the last Grand Slam year, it was Brian O'Driscoll who collected the top honour and, nine years on, he was last night inducted into the Hall of Fame.

He and Earls were team-mates and once upon a time the new Munster kid on the block was seen as a natural successor to the great centre.

This season he has spoken about the burden he felt when those comparisons were made and he has been helping others like Jordan Larmour and Garry Ringrose to cope with the expectation that comes with being so good, so young.

Since the summer tour of Japan and the United States when he belied his elder lemon status to go on a try-scoring rampage, the young guns have been looking to Earls for example.

His professionalism and preparation are spoken of in hushed tones by the talented young men who now surround him in the Munster and Ireland backlines. He has been around for 10 years or more, but he is still innovating and reinventing himself.

In an interview with this newspaper back in December, he spoke about how he had learnt to be selfish when it came to preparation.

Weights are no longer a focus, his warm-up is his own and he devotes lots of time to getting his body right.

He has also been working on his mental preparation with Keith Barry and has spoken with refreshing openness about his previous challenges with form, confidence and injury that hampered his career trajectory after he emerged from St Munchin's like an express train.

The results are there for all to see and for Munster and Ireland the winger has delivered big moments in high-pressure scenarios that have been key to some of the historic results this season.

He'll always have Paris; his catch from Sexton's clutch cross-kick as he rose above Virimi Vakatawa's head in the build-up to the famous drop-goal while his fellow professionals and coaches would reserve special respect for the moment he hunted Mattia Bellini down during the win over Italy.

Joe Schmidt does not hand individual praise out lightly, but he singled his winger out that day.

"Keith Earls has gotten a little bit older, he hasn't gotten any slower," the coach said. "I thought his chase-down was sensational."

Typically, the winger himself dismissed his try-saving effort as being "just part of the game".

The coach has always been an admirer of Earls whose old-school values appeal, yet he was denied the chance to work with the winger for the first two years of his tenure as the winger fell victim to a succession of injuries.

Even this season he has been struck down at different periods, missing the November internationals with a hamstring issue and suffering a knee problem in the Grand Slam win at Twickenham.

Yet, he has always been able to return firing on all cylinders and, while he couldn't get into the game in Bordeaux, he will be a key man when he returns to Dublin 4 this Saturday with his Munster team-mates.

He'd surely swap his individual award for a team success with his home province and if they are to win the PRO14 and end a seven-year wait for a trophy, the winger will be at the heart of the effort.

Fitness permitting, he'll then board the plane to Australia with Ireland and at the age of 30 he is part of the core team that will lead next season's World Cup effort.

He'll do so with the backing and respect of his peers, something he has earned through a series of consistently excellent performances over the course of the last 12 months.

You could have made a strong case for some of his team-mates, but the fact that none of them would begrudge Earls his moment in the sun speaks volumes for the respect in which he is held.

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