Saturday 25 November 2017

The might of the Earls

Flyer Keith has come a long way since his father's bust-up with Declan Kidney writes Vincent Hogan

Keith Earls (pictured) was forced to leave the pitch during Munster's game with Montauban at the weekend. Photo: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images
Keith Earls (pictured) was forced to leave the pitch during Munster's game with Montauban at the weekend. Photo: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On the night Keith Earls made his international debut against Canada last November, his parents -- Ger and Sandra -- were invited to a post-match reception in the Thomond Park players' lounge.

Ger Earls walked into the room feeling a little uneasy. His son had just been capped by a man with whom he once had a profound difference of opinion. Ger and Declan Kidney fell out pretty spectacularly at the onset of professionalism and had never travelled beyond the most cursory of exchanges since.

There wasn't exactly bad blood between them, more a vacuum left by an old and wounding quarrel.

As Kidney entered the room now, Sandra marched across and offered a welcoming handshake. The Irish coach took it warmly, leaning low to whisper in her ear. "Tell Ger I don't hold grudges," he said laughing.

And it was only then, only at that moment maybe 13 years on, that Ger Earls and Kidney finally, conclusively closed the door on a fractious moment in their lives that seemed destined to linger into old age. They shook hands and chatted warmly, Keith's story at last liberating them from an uncomfortable past.

In his first incarnation as Munster coach, it had fallen to Kidney to tell Ger that he was being overlooked for one of the part-time contracts on offer to the province's elite players. Earls had been in contention with three other open-sides, Jimmy Curtis, Colm McMahon and Gerry Murray.


The contracts were hugely attractive to players accustomed only to the amateur game. And, as they gathered in Kidney's office, Earls -- to this day considered one of the best players never to be capped for Ireland -- held genuine hopes that he would be the chosen one. He wasn't.

Kidney began: "We're giving the contract to Gerry Murray because ... " Earls did not even wait for the sentence to end, storming out of the room and slamming the door behind him, disappointment trip-wiring a desperate anger. He was never again called up for Munster.

At the best of times, Ger Earls' relationship with the province had never been a tranquil one. He played on the team that famously beat Australia in 1992, the same year he scored two tries in a final Irish trial. Yet, always, there was a sense that his first -- and maybe only enduring -- love was for his beloved Young Munster.

"When I look back, 'twas the wrong thing to do," he says now of that eruption in Kidney's office. I could have handled it a bit better. But I suppose I was a bit of a hot-head at the time."

There is a view in Limerick rugby that Ger Earls should have played rugby for Ireland, but that the difficult relationship with Munster essentially cursed his ambition. He is candid in his own appraisal.

"I was coming from a working-class family," he explains. "I preferred to work. I mean you were invited to take part in Munster training sessions which, to me, was a fancy way of saying 'hold the bags'. So, if a letter came to the house inviting me in to a session, I'd probably ignore it. I'd never ring anyone or tell anyone.

"As a carpet-layer, I just felt I could have been out fitting a carpet. That was my way of thinking and it stayed that way for years. I worried a little that the rugby could cost me my job. It kind of frightened me. Which was probably stupid because I worked for a rugby man (Tony Grant, Young Munster's AIL-winning coach).

"When I look back now, I think to myself 'Jesus, you could have helped yourself a bit more there'.

"But I came from the amateur background. In that thing with Declan, I still had the amateur attitude. And I don't think you were ever going to get it out of me really. It cost me. I just couldn't make that switch.

"But I wasn't blackguarded by anyone."

He watches Keith now and marvels at the discipline a professional rugby life demands. Every strand of his existence seems to be woven into a commitment to excellence. The food he eats, the sleep he guards so jealously, the virtually total exclusion of alcohol.

Ger Earls would have loved to challenge his own potential with full-time training, but his commitment to rugby was always fundamentally social. After a Saturday AIL game, it wasn't uncommon to unwind with three nights drinking. When Young Munster won that AIL crown in '93, the celebrating stretched to an entire week.

Back then, players played hard and drank hard. It was a convention of the amateur rugby life.

And Billy Earls, Ger's father, preached three simple rules of integrity to his family. A docker all his life, he advised his six sons to "work hard, look after your family, have your few pints".

Billy's local was Ernie Kinsella's in Thomondgate but, occasionally, he drank in nearby Whelan's where it wasn't uncommon for a few Garryowen supporters to advise him that his son's rugby career would be best served in Dooradoyle.

The very idea was anathema to Billy. He was intensely proud of his working-class roots and liked the fact that, at Young Munster, Ger played for a club true to that very lineage.

Any day he watched his son go to the door with a kit-bag, Billy Earls delivered the same, uncomplicated message. "Keep the hands down today!" he'd say to Ger. "No digging on the field."

The family lived in Kileely, but Ger made his home in nearby Moyross when deciding to settle down with Sandra 24 years ago. Sandra Costello came from strong rugby stock, her brother Georgie still plays prop in Thomond RFC today, despite being in his mid-40s.

Moyross would be home until just before last Christmas; Ger, Sandra and two-year-old Jenny moving into a new house in Meelick, Keith settling in his own place in Castletroy.

They know how Moyross sits in the national consciousness. The sense of ghetto and social chaos transplanted into minds by grim TV images on evening news bulletins. But to Ger Earls and his family, Moyross represents only community and friendship.

They moved, not to escape anything, but because they came upon a house elsewhere that simply stole their hearts. Ger says that Keith, especially, has found the leaving of Moyross difficult. He is an ambassador for the area's regeneration programme. The place is all but in his DNA.

And the Earls family haven't entirely escaped the sadness of Moyross. Two of Keith's cousins died in tragic circumstances and, around the time of his international debut, a few tabloid newspapers descended upon the area chasing smoky headlines. Ger found the experience galling.

"People see where Keith comes from, put two and two together and come up with eight," he says now. "Fellahs have agendas. When they put Keith and Moyross together, it gets people thinking. An awful lot of things you read about Moyross would madden you.

"I can tell you it was a sad day when we moved out. I mean Keith grew up in the square in Dalglish Park, a smashing place to live.

"We loved living there. The support Keith always got from the people of Moyross was unbelievable. He'd happily still live there. We all would.

"We just happened to come upon this house that we felt we couldn't let go."

Keith's growth into, arguably, the most exciting young talent in Irish rugby now fills his father with natural pride.

Like Ger, he started at St Nessan's Community School, but it was really under John Broderick's guidance at St Munchin's College that his talent became really conspicuous.

Famously, Keith scored the winning try for Munchin's in the Munster Senior Cup final against PBC in '06, by which time he had already been recruited into the Munster Academy. Ger chuckles now at the notion that Keith has somehow blossomed overnight.

He remembers taking an angry phone-call from Eric Elwood around the time of Keith's Leaving Cert. Elwood, the Ireland U-20 coach, felt that Earls was looking flat and uninterested in training.

"Eric tore strips off me" recalls Ger. "It was a real stinker of a phone-call. But, in the Academy, Keith was training before and after school. And it had started to take its toll coming up to his Leaving Cert. Because he was training with the school and Thomond as well as the Academy. It was taking too much out of him.

"He'd come home from school, throw the school-bag down and be asleep in two minutes. Eric didn't know. In fairness, I didn't really realise what was happening myself. I was leaving things drift, even though I noticed that his appetite wasn't that great either.

"It was only when Eric made that phone-call, I thought 'Jesus, something has to be done here'."

A more manageable schedule was drawn up in consultation with his coaches so that he could prioritise the Academy and, slowly, Keith Earls began to rediscover his strength.

As best he can, Ger now imparts the wisdom drawn from his own career to inoculate Keith against carelessness or presumption. But he is careful not to tread too heavily either. Ger and Keith Earls played two fundamentally different games, you see. It is important to understand that.

His own days as a rugby player were referenced, largely, by fun and camaraderie.

Ger Earls remembers that final Irish trial in '92. He scored a try for the Possibles in the first-half, was switched to the Probables for the second and scored another.

And that night, Ger Earls went on the town with Paul Hogan and Paco Fitzgerald dreaming the big dream.

The following Sunday morning, they regrouped at Lansdowne Road for the announcement of the team. Hogan, ordinarily a blindside flanker, was picked at openside. Earls didn't even make the replacements. He stood at the pay-phone that morning as Hogan rang his father back home in Limerick with the good news.

"I was delighted for Paul," he remembers. "He was a real stand-out forward. It never really dawned on me that this was my chance probably gone. It was only in later years, seeing other players coming along, that I'm thinking 'Jesus if I only applied myself...'

"When you get to the age where you know you're not going to make it."

They seem simple, romantic times in recall. Keith would have been five when Ger scored the winning try in that AIL final against St Mary's in front of 20,000 people at Lansdowne Road. He would have been with his father on the open-top bus that Monday night, edging away from Austin Quinlivan's pub by the train station and on up the fabled 'Yellow Road'.


They were wonderful, riotous times for the club game in Ireland. A Limerick derby routinely drew 10-12,000 crowds to Tom Clifford Park. To play for that Young Munster team was to feel a part of a special brotherhood.

The game today is unrecognisable. In his prime, Ger Earls wouldn't have crossed 14 stone on a weighing scales. A back-row forward lighter than the lightest of modern wingers.

He sees his son go bouncing off these vast, human husks now and finds himself consumed with a father's worries. Sitting in the stands with his brothers, Ger struggles to embrace the thrill of watching his own flesh and blood set the landscape tingling.

"I just can't relax" he says. "The fear is always there. You see, it feels like only yesterday that he was playing in that schools cup final, now he's in with the big boys. He's coming up against some huge men.

"But I know he's well able for it. Keith was always a physical player. When he played soccer, he kept getting yellow cards. But, as a rugby player, he modelled himself on Brian O'Driscoll. I mean O'Driscoll isn't the biggest man, but there's no-one pushes him around."

The carpet-laying dried up for Ger Earls about three years ago and he now drives a taxi. Life, he says, is good. For 19 years, Keith was their only child, but now little Jenny shines a beautiful light.

If Keith makes the Ireland team to play France in Croke Park next weekend, no family will feel more richly blessed. But there will be little anger if he doesn't. When Kidney included young Earls in his match-day squad for last year's Heineken Cup final, the trust implicit in the call was not lost on the player's father.

"You couldn't buy what Declan Kidney has done for Keith," says Earls. The past is another country.

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