Lions gave me the courage to run free
Keith Earls tells Hugh Farrelly how Irish team-mates restored his confidence after a nightmare start to dream South Africa tour
MAY 30, 2009, the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, South Africa. It should have been the proudest occasion of Keith Earls life but rapidly turned into a nightmare, potentially a career-destroying one.
The Royal XV were a cobbled-together side supposed to provide the Lions with a soft introduction to the tour, but they had not read the script and tore into the tourists who looked uncertain and rattled, none more than their young centre.
The 21-year-old had gone out as one of the cause celebres of the English media, who did not know a whole lot about the Limerick youngster and were asking loudly why England's Delon Armitage was not part of this expedition.
Those questions increased significantly in volume when Earls knocked on a succession of straightforward catches and was forced off early with a shoulder injury. At that point, his tour was written off in many quarters and, nearly two years on, the 23-year-old admits he went to a dark place, believing he had let himself, his family and his friends down.
That harrowing experience could easily have propelled the career of this prodigiously talented youngster into free fall if he had allowed it to consume him but with the support of colleagues around him and trusted advisers back home, he refused to let that happen ...
"It was the worst game of rugby I have ever played in my life, terrible, I just kept dropping the ball. I had only two caps at the time and I was trying to get respect off the lads I was playing with, and I had the English and Welsh media who thought I shouldn't have been on tour in the first place.
"I was upset afterwards. My dad was having a barbecue in my uncle's house for the first game and it must have really hurt because the whole family were around and I end up having a nightmare. But I Skyped him that night and he said 'just stick it out, it happens to the best in the world'.
"Afterwards,(backs coach) Rob Howley was a great help but all the lads -- Paulie, Rog, Drico -- they all spoke to me and then you had the likes of Shane Williams saying 'forget about it, come on we'll go for a drink'.
"I was trying to keep the head down low and he was saying 'we all go through it, it doesn't matter how many caps you have'. That gave me a huge boost and I just said, right I'm going to start enjoying it now, I'm on a Lions tour."
Earls responded brilliantly, his pace and attacking verve standing out as he scored tries to savour against the Cheetahs and Emerging Springboks. He also grew as a person, revelling in the camaraderie of an old-fashioned tour and becoming a hugely popular member of the squad. He sees that tour as a turning point in his mental development and even has a special souvenir to remind him of what were a seminal few weeks.
"I was in charge of 'Lenny the Lion' because I was the youngest -- Leigh Halfpenny was younger but he was late out. I had to mind Lenny for the eight weeks and Tommy (Bowe) and another few kept trying to take him. Lenny went missing a couple of times and I got fined but I got Lenny through the tour and he's in a glass case in my father's house now -- it's nice to get some reward for squashing him into my face in my room so he wouldn't be taken.
"It was a very enjoyable tour, fellas hung around together and enjoyed each other's company. It didn't have to be a drink, just having a meal, surfing in Durban or whatever, there were no cliques. I made great friends on that tour. I roomed with Mike Blair, we got on really well, he's a good lad, funny, like Harry Ellis. It was a brilliant experience."
The son of ...
The family are probably sick of hearing Ger Earls continually referred as the "best forward never to be capped by Ireland" but that does not make it untrue.
Earls Snr was a superb wing-forward for Young Munster and his province. Quick and relentless with scant regard for self-preservation, he was the best open-side in Ireland in the 1990s and terrorised world champions Australia when they came a cropper in Musgrave Park in 1992. The bond between father and son is incredibly tight and one that Keith leans on heavily -- even to the point of sharing a party piece.
"Yeah, they call it 'Apples' but it's a song called 'Only Our Rivers Run Free' which Christy Moore used to sing, I sang it in Scotland last weekend.
"My father's great, he doesn't blow smoke up my ass, he tells me where I need to improve, which is what I need to hear. We used to go to away games with him, me like a team member down the back of the bus. We are modest people and I wouldn't talk too much about it when people tell me 'your father should have been capped' but I used to love seeing him play. He was known for his tackling which was really enjoyable to watch, he'd put in a big hit and the crowd would be talking about him.
"For Munster's win over Australia, I was only five, I can only remember one thing, trying to tune in the telly at my aunt's house. I can remember my aunt tuning it in and we got it up in black and white, all fuzzy, and then the picture went completely -- but I've heard a lot about it since."
Moyross is the suburb of Limerick which was built in the 1970s as an 'urban dream' and then abandoned to unemployment, poverty and crime. It is an area associated with negative stories and when Earls' Moyross roots are routinely raised, it is generally with a dollop of patronisation attached by those who cannot relate to it.
But Earls is intensely proud of where he comes from -- as demonstrated by his choice of rugby footwear.
"It was funny. The adidas lads have all their initials on their boots, Ronan has 'Rog', Johnny Sexton has 'JS' and I had 'KE'. I was over doing a photo shoot in London with adidas and these new boots were coming out, they were a bit flash and I was like 'put Moyross on these ones' for the craic, I have two pairs of green ones and two pairs of red ones, I knew the fellas in Moyross would love it. I was down last week and everyone was asking for a pair.
"It is a very close-knit community. It's had its problems inside there but from what I can remember growing up all my neighbours were brilliant. My parents have moved out of Moyross now and my mother was devastated, she didn't want to move because she loves the place and neighbours like Peg Kiely in the house next door.
"A group of monks (known as the Slam Dunk Monks for their work in disadvantaged areas in the US, based around basketball) moved into Moyross, helping out with the community. They held a rapping contest and there was run-down houses and wasted land where the monks built a pond and a garden, I opened it when it was done. It's great, trying to bring a bit of positivity back to the community. They are walking around in all the monk gear."
"Moyross was built in the 1970s and it was supposed to be the place to live in Limerick at the time, it was supposed to be beautiful; over the years it's gone downhill, but they are trying to build it back up again. Some of my friends went on to do different things that maybe you wouldn't be proud of but I'd still bump into lads I went to school with and they are good lads. When I go back and I'm collecting my sister from crèche all the young fellas would be around the car.
"I'd be proud of Moyross; my parents are maybe 20 minutes, half an hour walk away now but there's people calling over to see my family give my sister chocolate bars and stuff like that, they are good people."
The start of the season was dominated by an ankle injury but Earls is really beginning to motor now and, after expressing frustration at his lack of involvement in the narrow loss to France, he looked razor sharp on the left wing in Murrayfield.
"Against Scotland, I went looking for it, stood at first receiver a bit. They did a bit of kicking as well so there were chances to counter. I think there is maybe a pattern with the referees now looking out for us and we just have to be careful. We let them have the ball in the last 10 minutes and it just showed the quality of our defence, we turned them over a few times as well.
Rog was unbelievable. He's enjoying himself now, there was a time when he wasn't playing with a smile on his face for a while.
"I'd be very positive. Ireland are still in the running for the Triple Crown and Munster are top of the Magners League and still in the Challenge Cup and I'm starting to enjoy my rugby, I've got back the weight I lost because of my injury and I'm starting to feel sharp again."