Wednesday 24 July 2019

Comment: Keith Earls is an example to all young stars that it is comebacks not setbacks which can define a career

Limerick man has taken every knock in his stride to remain a pivotal player for club and country

Keith Earls is in a rich vein of form ahead of today’s Six Nations opener. Photo: Sportsfile
Keith Earls is in a rich vein of form ahead of today’s Six Nations opener. Photo: Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Jacob Stockdale was walking out the dressing-room door after Ireland's win over the USA Eagles in New Jersey last June when Keith Earls called him back.

Stockdale had just played for Ireland for the first time and was about to swap his jersey with one of the American players. But Earls told him to keep his debut jersey and gave him one of his own jerseys to exchange instead.

Stockdale was taken aback by the Munster man's generous gesture but Earls knows what it's like to be a 21-year-old who just scored a try in his first game for Ireland.

The wingmen of last summer are the starting wingers this spring for Ireland's Six Nations opener in Paris today. These are heady days for Irish rugby with the quality coming through.

Flick through the rolodex of talent and the four Js - Joey, Jacob, Jordan and James - are players to build a future around. But even against this backdrop of youth and dizzying potential, the age-defying talent of Earls remains more relevant than ever.

It will be 10 years this November since Earls made his Ireland debut at Thomond Park. At the team announcement press conference a few days before his first cap in November 2008, Earls looked younger than his newly-minted age of 21 as he sat beside Ireland head coach Declan Kidney.

He spoke about ringing his dad, Ger, (the legendary Young Munster flanker who was never picked to play for Ireland) to tell him the news, and added: "It's an absolute dream come true." You know how his first Ireland game went: first touch, first try, the future.

Earls' debut season went supernova. He didn't play in the 2009 Six Nations but his first year as a professional rugby player finished with him filling the role of bolter for the Lions tour to South Africa.

While Leigh Halfpenny (20) was rehabbing a thigh injury in Wales, Earls was the youngest kid in a Lions squad captained by Paul O'Connell who used to play with Ger Earls. It all added up to a hell of a lot of pride but also pressure.

It's still a bit stomach-churning to recall how Earls' first Lions game went: first touch, dropped ball, a performance that had to be watched peering through the fingers.

Earls is a player who has grown up before our eyes. When a kid comes on the scene with his kind of talent, you're invested, you're involved because you want to see him grow into himself and fulfil his potential. But there were stages in Earls' career which tugged between him chasing form after an injury and finding his most natural position.

Earls wanted to be a centre when he always looked like a winger. "To be honest, I absolutely hate playing 11. Every bad game I've played, it's been at 11," he said in an interview six years ago.

Earls' career has traversed different reigns in Irish rugby yet he missed out on days the big silverware was won. He didn't play but was part of Munster's extended squad when they won their second Heineken Cup in 2008.

He made his debut in Kidney's first season as Ireland head coach but wasn't in the Grand Slam-winning squad. The day before the Ireland squad was due to meet at Carton House for Joe Schmidt's first Six Nations in charge in January 2014, Earls sustained a knee injury in Munster's European Cup pool game and missed the entire championship. Ireland's victorious defence the following year also passed him by before he eventually got to work properly under Schmidt before the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

If his career has been hit by some lows, there was no loss like the one in Paris in October 2016 when the late Anthony Foley passed away. His death reshaped the way Earls looked at life.

Because of a suspension he picked up from a red-card incident in Munster's Champions Cup game with Glasgow, the day after the burial, Earls missed Ireland's win over New Zealand in Chicago. But Earls saw the bigger picture. "I've taken rugby in a completely different way now because of Axel's death," Earls said at the time. "I get to go home to my family every day."

Earls has grown before our eyes. There's an old-schoolness about him which feels like he's one of the last links to old Munster. He used to room with O'Connell and during the last World Cup Earls said they used to spend their spare time reading or chatting about the great characters at Young Munster.

When O'Connell decided to retire from Munster, Earls was the first team-mate he told as they drove to training in Cork. There was no drama from Earls. They spent a few minutes talking about it and the next 45 minutes listening to the radio without saying a word.

A couple of weeks ago, Earls met O'Connell in the schoolyard in Limerick. They started chatting about how nervous they used to get in the room before matches.

"He (O'Connell) said if he had his chance over again he wouldn't have worried as much. I kind of took something from that as well," Earls said on Thursday. "Look I'm just enjoying rugby and it seems to be working".

It is working. And turns out 11 ain't all that bad a position either.

Last month Munster returned to Paris. The U Arena will be Simon Zebo's future playground yet Earls looked at home on the synthetic pitch with his attacking lines, his strength, his guile.

The following weekend he produced a man of the match performance in the win over Castres.

We wonder what Earls will do without Zebo, when really, what will Zebo do without Earls? After that win, Earls was asked about the delayed start to the game because of a waterlogged pitch. Again, the bigger picture. "This squad are used to adapting, the last couple of years we've had ups and downs," Earls said.

And so back to Paris and a shift from the left wing to the right to accommodate Stockdale. Before he tore his hamstring which ruled him out of the November Series, Earls had a few words about a player nearly nine years his junior.

"He'll make mistakes as he gets older and it will start getting difficult when teams start figuring him out and what he's about," Earls said.

Yes, the kids will make mistakes. But look at Earls. He figured himself out.

There will be setbacks, but, more importantly, comebacks. Just ask Earls.

Irish Independent

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