Saturday 16 December 2017

Earls draws on spirit of 2000

Boyhood doodle becomes inspiration for Irish winger Photo: Getty Images
Boyhood doodle becomes inspiration for Irish winger Photo: Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

It is March 20, 2000. A wide-eyed schoolkid is sitting towards the back of his class. He can hear an echo from a few feet away as a geography teacher describes how best to distinguish the Barrow, the Nore and the Suir on a map of Ireland.

But the kid is dreamily doodling. A green giant is looming large from a blank page where the topography of Munster is supposed to be. It is Brian O'Driscoll. Surrounding him are three smaller figures in blue. They are crying. They are French.

This is Keith Earls. Aged 11 years and five months. Hoping to become a daydream believer. Ten years on, he will tread the same turf as his boyhood hero.

"Yeah, it's massive," he says ahead of Saturday's daunting trip to Paris. In case you haven't heard, Ireland have won there just twice post-war.

"I always dreamed about playing for Ireland. It's my first Six Nations start. I still pinch myself. I can't wait for it. It should be good.

"I remember watching that 2000 match at home and I remember going into school on the Monday; I think I was in fifth or sixth class. Drawing a picture of Brian scoring a try and having three French fellahs crying in it and all."

Denis Hickie recalled the occasion this week and pointed out how utterly uninhibited guys like him and O'Driscoll, Peter Stringer and Ronan O'Gara were by the weight of crippling history.

There is a similar vibe emanating from this season's Paris-bound model, a quiet sense of confidence clearly buttressed by the evidence garnered during last season's Grand Slam win.

Earls was on the fringes of that success and is champing at the bit to storm French rugby's Bastille. Contemplating the feat without fear of failure, a singular element of that 2000 triumph, will be vital.

"I think so," agrees Earls, who will win his fifth Irish cap against the French. "In the last couple of years, we let France get a couple of scores up and then we had to fight back. We'll just go out with a good game-plan.

"It's definitely vital to get off to a good start. It's massive. If you could get the first couple of scores, you could nearly turn the crowd against them. It's a massive challenge.

"It's a tough place to go but I've a bit of experience with the Heineken Cup playing against Perpignan. We can go there with confidence because before we played them, I think they'd lost only one in 28 games.

"We just had to have our own mentality that we were going to win and try and beat them up. We said 'we can't just go down there and leave them come at us'. It was a massive boost."

Earls' restoration to the left-wing berth he occupied with some distinction in November was inevitable once Andrew Trimble succumbed to hamstring trouble, although former Ireland wing Tyrone Howe shares the common perception that Trimble may have been axed in any event.

"The Ulsterman had a tough time in this fixture two years ago, while Earls can draw on his European sojourns with Munster, most recently in Perpignan, and his Lions adventures," offers Howe.

"The Munster player is the more natural ball-player and there will be all sorts of challenges on Saturday, not just a physical one."

For his part, Earls acknowledges that his chances were diluted by Munster's back-line tinkering until he found himself established as Jean de Villiers' midfield partner, immediately prior to the seminal Perpignan double-header.

"It was tough missing out last week," he admits. "I thought I was in with a good chance after playing against South Africa and Fiji. I suppose moving into No 13 with Munster didn't really help.

"Trimble has been in great form; he scored a great individual try against Bath and he's just been brilliant. He deserved a run. It was tough from my side, but playing No 13, it's going to be hard to go on the wing."

Earls' speed was clearly a factor. He'll be marking Vincent Clerc, who will be seeking an eighth, ninth or, indeed, 10th try in his last five matches against Ireland -- his seven tries so far include a hat-trick two years ago, and a Grand Slam destroyer in Croke Park in 2007.

Earls once worried so much about opponents, he would be driven to distraction until noted sports psychologist Gerry Hussey attuned his thinking.

Unlike the rest of the country, he won't pay Clerc a whit of attention.

"I used to worry about opponents," he admits, "but I actually don't care who I come up against any more. I just concentrate on myself and my own game. If I just do the basics right and as long as I'm happy, I'll just worry about myself. I've been watching a video on YouTube of Maradona before warm-ups and you see him doing all these skills and playing to the crowd. He was so relaxed, it was cruel.

"He's well able to perform under pressure, so you kind of look at that and think: 'Jeez, just go out and relax and be myself, and everything will be alright'."

Earls may also admire Maradona's famous sleight of hand too, if not Thierry Henry's.

"If we won by cheating it would be kind of payback," he smiles.

Irish Independent

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