Sunday 15 December 2019

England wakes up to Earls' majesty

Keith Earls dives over in the corner to score Ireland's second try Photo: Getty Images
Keith Earls dives over in the corner to score Ireland's second try Photo: Getty Images

Keith Earls sits bolt upright in his bed and shivers. He checks his mobile. It is 5.30am. It is Saturday morning. Keith Earls is shaking like a sheet of paper caught in the breeze. Can't sleep.

Keith Earls starts thinking about the day that lies yawning ahead. He knows all about Twickenham. The history. England. The chariot. Not many people in England know about Keith Earls. Still can't sleep.

Twelve hours later, he is a winner at Twickenham. Twelve hours later, he is a star at Twickenham. Won't sleep for a while. Doesn't care. Too much to talk about.

In arguably the game's turning moment, the reverse penalty against the vapid Danny Care, Earls has spotted his mate Tomas O'Leary being manhandled by a white jersey. Earls reacts quickest. Someone jokes later it's the Limerick in him.

The captain of England, Steve Borthwick, is grappling with O'Leary. Earls scampers to the scene, like a demented Scrappy Doo, and attempts to clamber upon the gargantuan frame of captain of England.

The captain of England has four stone, six inches and eight years on Keith Earls. And yet someone else in white has to come to the aid of the captain of England, as this seething dervish hangs from his shoulders. 'Tis not the size of the dog in the fight' and all that.

"Ah there were a couple of fellahs hanging around Tomas," breezes Earls. "I don't like to see a fellah left on his own, you know. Just go in and push anyway. I wouldn't have got nowhere I'd say."

Still and all, it was a risk to go for then biggest fellah? "They fall harder, don't they." Having fought off his sudden bout of debilitating illness, it seemed Earls was ready to take on anyone.

"I couldn't sleep," he says of his pre-match torment. "I was freezing. I just got on with it. In the warm-up, I felt knackered. I didn't know if I'd have the energy. But when I came back out again for the national anthems, I felt a little bit better. I got a few taps of the ball then and felt much better, eased into the game."

An early garryowen and take presaged an all-action display. His thunderous first-half break provided the only one of four line-breaks that did not produce a try, Jamie Heaslip's support run unfortunately missed by the youngster.

"Yeah, it was good," he defers. "I always want to run with the ball, I don't think about kicking. I said I'd give it a go here. And when I saw a couple of forwards in front of me I thought, 'Jesus I'm in for it.' But luckily I got through. I couldn't hear Jamie roaring at me, though."

Ironically, it was his crucial intervention which pushed Ireland to 13-6, immediately after the Care reversal. As an example in clinical finishing, Earls' try was supreme. His memory is understandably clouded by elation.

"Was that after he threw Tomas to the ground? He reacted. I don't know what Tomas was doing but sure scrum-halves are always at it.

"He threw Tomas on the ground so obviously the penalty was turned. It put us in the 22 and we got a score off it. It was a great kick from Jonny into the corner.

"I got one like that a couple of years ago for the 'A's against Scotland but to score one against England was even better. It was a great maul by the forwards. Jonny Sexton then just came down the blindside and put me away in the corner.

"I can't remember if there was a defender. It's all a bit of a blur. I thought it was just a handy walk-in. I think there might have been a forward inside. I think with Jonny's pace, he had Nick Easter and that freed me up."

Earls' primal scream was a stark image of the day. Twickenham, never mind the rest of England, knew who Keith Earls was now. And the Moyross flyer, still only eight caps into what will be a lengthy international career, is getting to know himself too, you feel.

Left wing is home but expediency will require ongoing versatility, whether the move to full-back in Paris or on Saturday, when he moved into midfield following Paul O'Connell's attempted decapitation of the captain.

"I'm enjoying it now on the wing," he agrees. "I'm starting to get a lot more experience there and learn a lot more about it. I'm getting a bit more ball and I'm happy.

"I didn't mind playing at full-back in Paris. I always do my analysis on the three positions; centre, wing and full-back. It was a bit strange but it's all about getting experience.

"It was my first time playing at international level in the centre. You have to be really physical and fit. There's a lot of work-rate. It was a good experience."

Earls was keen to praise the forwards' effort; as Declan Kidney pointed out, the day was about individuality being subsumed by the collective.

As Jamie Heaslip raps in another corner, the man of the match is even prepared to assume blame for his team's solitary missed tackle from an astonishing 100.

"I hope it wasn't me! I don't know," says Heaslip. "Merv (Murphy, the team's unforgiving video analyst) will tell me tomorrow. I'll keep my head down. If I'm sitting beside (defence coach) Les Kiss on the bus, I'll know it's me."

Heaslip even deflects praise for his role in halting England's late rolling maul. "I'd say it was Rory Best in there," he says.

The Ulster man's simply miraculous recovery from injury continued apace; yet even he was not to offer any concessions to the honest truth about Ireland's recurring problems in the scrum.

"It was very tough," he admits. "We knew going into it that they'd be a big pack, that they'd be looking to probably target us a little in the scrum. We'd be a little disappointed with it. We'll have to take a look at it."

Indiscipline will be a bugbear too; a count of 14 penalties was the highest on Kidney's watch. "I think we did give them a lot of opportunities to get back into the match," concedes Heaslip. "The penalties that we gave away were silly and not needed and I was probably guilty of some myself.

"Despite all that when we went behind we showed a lot of confidence and belief: we have been in that position before and knew what we had to do. We were very clinical when we got into their 22 and the tries we scored as a result."

And Earls? A mere 12 hours after sitting beady-eyed and shivering in his bed, Earls is fit to swim home if prompted. Had he ever felt like telling Declan Kidney he couldn't play in the game?

The answer was swift and unambiguous. "Not in a game like this, no."

Earls clearly has the stomach for raw battle. And so Saturday's sleep came slowly and gently and lasted until well after the dawn of day. Such a warm feeling.

Irish Independent

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