David Kelly: Earls comfortable in his role
HE'LL have had sleepless nights this weekend. Not that Keith Earls will mind. Interrupted slumber does not betray the mind of a worried man; quite the opposite, in fact.
After an intensely stressful month in which his life has been transformed beyond all comprehension, the early struggles of his first child, daughter Ella-Maye, surpassed his perceptions of what passes for stress.
One of this Ireland squad's most naturally introspective and self-critical players, Earls could have been forgiven for bearing an even weightier load as supporters anticipated his tilt to replace Brian O'Driscoll for the rest of his championship.
Instead, just as his team shrugged off the post-Wales ennui that afflicted them for much of the torpid opening half of this mostly soporific occasion, so too did Earls seem liberated by the freedom of the green sward.
"It was good," says one of this team's most likeable personalities, now burdened with the task of replacing the irreplaceable. "On a personal note, it was good to get back. It's been five weeks since I played. It was a good, tough, physical game but I enjoyed it, especially the second half -- we scored some good tries.
"It was an emotional couple of weeks for me and then I came back and the Paris game was called off as well, so I was itching to get out there. It is just a relief that everything is going well now and I am back out on the pitch.
"It's great at home now. She is keeping us up at night but it was the best feeling in the world when she was born. She got a bit sick and it was really a tough few weeks for me and my partner but thankfully everything is good now and she's flying it."
So too was Earls after some initial splutters. He feels he has settled in with the number 13 on his back. No more settling in.
"Ah no, that process is gone, you know, I've been playing there all my life. Obviously, I've played on the wing a couple of times in the last few years, which went against me, playing on the wing and going in to full-back at times.
"So I spoke to Tony McGahan when I came back from the World Cup and said that I wanted to be a 13, I feel more comfortable, I want to be in the mix defensive-wise and get confidence."
It remains to be seen how brittle that confidence may be. After all, he still recalls the Welsh quarter-final defeat at the World Cup to be his worst game in an Irish jersey.
"I just made a couple of mistakes in defence in the World Cup. No excuses but I should have gone off that time when I got hit by Jamie Roberts. It would have been easier for me to go off but I wanted to stay on and help the lads and I made a couple of silly decisions.
"But that happens in rugby. I just wanted to get out there and prove everyone wrong and show everyone I am capable of taking over from Brian and 13 is my position.
"I felt good in my defence today and it is something I have been working on since I got back from the World Cup.
"I know my attack is there but I've been using Donnacha Ryan as a battering ram for me during training so it is all about defence for here on in for me."
Those aspects will be sorely tested next week against Aurelien Rougerie and Co. Ensuring the pressure belt is removed can only help.
"Exactly," he agrees. "It is something I'm learning to do. You just have to go out and do the easy things first, you know, instead of doing the big plays. Occasionally I drift in and try to make the big plays, like at the World Cup.
"But it's good and I'm feeling confident after today. I'm buzzing, I haven't played in five weeks and hopefully I'll relish the chance to play against one of the best centres in the world and one of the best partnerships in the world.
"Without having watched it I think myself and Gordon D'Arcy worked well together. In attack, we even managed a few line breaks. In defence, there were no issues.
"We haven't played with each other that much and he is used to Drico, so it will take a while. We're confident with each other and we know each other well. I don't think we did anything bad and our confidence will only build.
"Of course next week is different. Rougerie and (Wesley) Fofana are good players. We're getting a bit confident. I know it is a different test with Rougerie next week, hopefully if selected.
"We'll enjoy this victory and have a look at the video on Monday."
It is a video session he may watch with bleary eyes. But also a smile.