Friday 20 July 2018

Keith Earls' growing maturity has made him a priceless asset for Munster and Ireland

 

Keith Earls - a small man in a big man's game - is in the form of his life
Keith Earls - a small man in a big man's game - is in the form of his life
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

An insight into the mindset of an international rugby player. Or at least one of veteran status but at the top of his game. In the dying minutes of the Ireland versus Italy game last weekend, Mattia Bellini latched on to a pass from Joey Carbery, and took off down the wing. It looked like a home run.

Carbery was in no position to make up the ground, and looked across the field where he spotted the welcome sight of Keith Earls already in hot pursuit. For the wing it was a high-risk chase, for if he didn't reel in his prey we would have been doing calculations on his lack of speed over the ground. The only numbers he was crunching in his head were the ones around minimising the damage on the scoreboard, which read 56-19 in Ireland's favour.

"Yeah, well no matter if I was going to catch him, I was going to chase hard to the corner to get the conversion out there," Earls says. "But thankfully he hit a bit of quicksand as well. That made two of us."

Giving up wouldn't be an option then. Which is why, at 30, Keith Earls - a small man in a big man's game - is in the form of his life.

When Wales were winning their last Championship, in 2013, they had Alex Cuthbert and George North on the wings. Throw in Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts at centre, and Mike Phillips at nine, and five of their seven backs were forwards in drag. Where was someone like Earls going to fit into that production?

He went through a phase of trying to get bigger. Then he went through a phase of trying to get skinnier. Between Chinese meals on a Sunday night in his parents' gaff and diets at the other end of the food chain he wasn't too sure whether he was coming or going.

Currently he is going forward, and with remarkable acceleration. Watching him chase down Bellini last weekend was a man who understands the mechanics of speed endurance, the former European indoor 400m champion David Gillick.

"Yeah, I watched it on TV," he says. "It was from a standing start and I thought: 'Holy shit, he's going to catch him!' He looked lean and when he was running he didn't have his shoulders up around his ears, tensed up like you see sometimes. He looked like a runner.

"If he's dropped a couple of pounds then he's probably got the right power-to-weight ratio, so he's a bit quicker and more confident. I think a lot of athletes have noticed that rugby players are looking at improving their mechanics of running. Power to weight ratio. That's what it's all about."

You can see it not only in Earls' ability over the ground, but in his capacity to get off it. Like the stunning fetch over the head of Virimi Vakatawa in Paris the previous weekend, to keep alive Ireland's drive to the drop goal.

"I had to jump a lot of walls to get over to my wife when I was young, so I'd put it down to that," he claims. "Jumping walls in Thomond Park, and running away from security guards. The lads were saying put Garda sirens behind me and I run quicker!"

In that case there are blue lights flashing all over the place: 27 tries in 64 Tests - five from his last five internationals - and he has touched down in each of his last three games for Munster. Earls is unrecognisable from the 21-year-old who toured South Africa with the Lions in 2009.

It had been his breakthrough season in Munster. He had only two Ireland caps to his name. The greenhorn of the party, he was selected for the tour opener, struggled badly and never recovered.

"Yeah, definitely. I think going on the Lions that young and learning the hard way - my first game was an extremely poor game and I did nothing to deal with that. And I think that stuck with me for a couple of years and I lost a lot of confidence from it.

"When I was younger I used to read stuff and it definitely knocked me down for a couple of years. It's taken me a long time to get back from it. It's something that's a massive achievement, I suppose. It was a tough time for me and a tough time for a couple of years afterwards, going on that Lions tour."

Even though he missed out on Ireland's Grand Slam in 2009, and the Championships of 2014 and 2015, surely there's a deep satisfaction at his current status?

"Yeah, it's very enjoyable (now) but I still regret for the way my confidence and . . . I suppose there was five, six years there where my confidence was low and there were often times when I was wondering why I was playing rugby. Thankfully I'm out the better side of that now and I'm on the up, hopefully."

It's as well that the journey took an upturn, for with his father having missed the boat entirely it would have made for a hefty load of regret in the Earls household. Most interviews with Keith Earls feature his father's name. An open side for Young Munster pre-professionalism, Ger Earls is prominent in the 'should have been capped' club.

In 1992 Ireland toured New Zealand with a squad where it was deemed better by many to be unavailable to travel. A whopping 17 dodged the draft. Ger Earls, a vital cog in a ferocious Young Munster pack, wasn't asked.

When early in the trip Denis McBride suffered a stress fracture to his foot, we reckoned tour manager Noel Murphy would be dialling Limerick long distance. But when we mentioned as much to him, in the foyer of another cold, grim hotel, he looked at us like we had just been discovered under a cabbage.

Instead they sent for Wanderers back rower Paddy Kenny. For a player from 'The Chaps', as Wanderers were known, to be favoured over one from a mongrel pack in Limerick, suited perfectly the narrative of that city not getting a fair shake from the IRFU. Keith Earls was not even five years old at the time, but he would have grown up knowing that his old man should have been on the list of those entitled to international match tickets at Lansdowne Road.

The son has achieved enough however for the two of them. On Saturday against Wales he will hopefully make another entry in that ledger, which would be apposite given Warren Gatland passed over Earls when putting together the Lions squad for New Zealand last summer.

Instead the wing went to the US and Japan with a slew of young guns who were asking his advice at every turn. Given how he has kept himself relevant in a game that changes its demands on a regular basis, Earls had lots of wisdom to offer. What he might do when it's all over though is something he hasn't yet worked out.

"Genuinely that's something I'm worried about that the moment," he says. "I don't know what I'm going to do. Unfortunately I've no education. If I could have my time back, I'd have concentrated in school and possibly gone to college. That's something I'm going to have to look at for the next two or three years. Coaching? I'm not sure about that either. We'll see.

"I get incredible satisfaction from helping people, y'know? Years ago, they were saying: 'Why would you help young wingers when they're coming for your spot?' But I can help young wingers and back my own talent as well - to push them on and to push myself on.

"It's quite surreal with the likes of Jordan (Larmour) coming in now. He's only 20. That used to be me, and the 10 years have just gone and now myself, Kearns (Rob Kearney), Sexto and Church (Cian Healy) are the oldest, which is quite bizarre. But it's great. That's how it unfolds as you get older. You get a lot more mature, and it's satisfying helping them out."

That maturity has made Earls a priceless asset to Munster and Ireland. He'll be short odds on Saturday to score what would be his fifth try against Wales in nine meetings. They don't offer prices on how many men he might chase down, but if they did that wouldn't be too attractive either, for he is, as the current vernacular would have it, in a good place.

"Yeah, exactly," he agrees. "And hopefully I'll get another couple of years out of it as well."

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