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'You have to fight like a rat in a corner' - Keith Earls heeds advice of Felix Jones

Keith Earls at the Ireland camp yesterday. Photo: PA
Keith Earls at the Ireland camp yesterday. Photo: PA
David Kelly

David Kelly

"You've all the time in the world, kid!"

We thought of Anthony Foley's words in those breathless moments on Saturday. Perhaps Keith Earls caught their echoes too amidst the tumbling raindrops.

Keith Earls rises above France’s Virimi Vakatawa to fetch Johnny Sexton’s crossfield kick. Photo: Sportsfile
Keith Earls rises above France’s Virimi Vakatawa to fetch Johnny Sexton’s crossfield kick. Photo: Sportsfile

There was a time in his life when he wouldn't have been the one to put his hand up and take the responsibility for maintaining Ireland's frenetic clamber for the winning post.

There were two scripts being written on Saturday. And two roles to play. The losers and the winners. He knew what one he wanted to play.

With four minutes left, and his side trailing by one, Earls tried to catch a ball and failed. He didn't think he knocked on but the officials did.

France scrum. After a Feydeau farce involving the HIA, Ireland's eight collapsed into the Parisian muck. A younger Earls might have wanted to join them there. Now, he knew there was only one thing on his mind.

He had to put up his hand. If not now, when? If not him, who else?

And so he soared beyond his opposite number to gather Johnny Sexton's cross-field kick and make the run without which there would have been no territory to claim that fateful dropped-goal.

Gambled

Sexton gambled on Earls but the biggest gamble was that of Earls on himself.

"I suppose some players probably could have gone into their shells after that. I was just happy myself that in a pressure environment, Johnny had the balls to kick it over to me.

"Obviously, the cross-field was on for a while and I had my hand out for a while. In fairness to the forwards, they were running into brick walls, they were getting advantage line and coming back.

"It's hard enough to communicate because if you're roaring and shouting then their winger looks up and sees you and they start fanning out.

"So I suppose it's a telepathic thing with all 10s - you hold your width and if they see a hand out, it's on. Sometimes there mightn't be a hand out, I might just have to go off his body language if he sees the space.

"It was the only play that I could see that was on and it could have easily not taken the pressure, I could have kept my hand down and not called for it. In fairness to Johnny . . . "

Instinct kidnapped him; his only thought, "To catch it at all costs! It was a nice piece of play out of him, it was actually a perfect kick because it made me come in off the touchline.

"If it was any closer to the touchline, it probably could have been easier to knock me into touch. It wasn't over my head, I was able to come at it at an angle."

But the job was only half-done.

Isolated, the key now was to step inside, not out, and make some ground, otherwise his isolation would be manna for the defending French ground forces. Another man's words came into his mind.

"Felix Jones has a good saying in Munster for the lads out wide. 'If you're stuck out wide on your own, you have to fight like a rat in a corner.'

"That stuck out in my head as I was waiting for support to come. Then I suppose it all depends on the space."

The rest, as they say . . . But his own history informed his present, enabling him to seize the future with both hands.

"That game was definitely my proudest moment in Irish rugby for me in my playing career because I haven't won a Championship or anything like that.

"That was my first win in Paris and I suppose the way the game went, the last kick of the game, it was definitely my proudest moment, my biggest moment."

Those Foley words we remembered came after another dropped goal, from Ian Keatley in Sale. That Foley had his time snatched so cruelly has forced Earls to reassess how he spends his allotted currency.

He's more relaxed now than ever, much more able to chart the narrow gap between success and failure.

"Yeah, I am," he smiles, almost wanly. "Unfortunately, it took me about 10 years." He struggled for confidence, too. "No chance, no chance."

Life and death changed him.

"I suppose Axel (Anthony Foley), I've said it before. Having kids as well. Chatting to Paulie O'Connell again a few weeks ago, there's no point in getting stressed about a game of rugby.

"It's not life-threatening, it's all forgotten about when you retire. There's worse going on in the world. It's a crazy game. It does strange things to you."

The 30-year-old would not recognise his 20-year-old self.

"Definitely more professional. I probably took it for granted. I probably thought my talent would get me there alone. I found out from harsh lessons you need to keep working every day. That's what I do now, constantly looking for an extra one per cent. That's a 24-7 pursuit."

We ask does Jordan Larmour remind him of the 20-year-old Earls but the older man recalls when he was compared to Brian O'Driscoll and he falters.

"We've the same colour hair maybe! I suppose for me being compared to players when I was younger is probably the worst thing that could happen.

"He is a unique talent, he should be just compared to himself. He should just keep doing what he is doing. And he seems to be doing it well. He's got great confidence.

"I envy all of them young lads, they're incredible. I suppose when I came in first it was all about playing for Munster and the fear. With Paulie and Rog and all them. I suppose you drive yourself mad."

He became distracted by trying to become bigger, faster and stronger. Now he is in better shape than ever and playing his best rugby.

"I'm a lot lighter, I was a lot chubbier back then, I didn't really look after myself. I'm faster and more agile now.

"I had bad habits. Sunday Chinese takeaways with the family. It was changing all the time back then with diets. I got obsessed with trying to be heavy, then I got obsessed with trying to be skinny."

He knows who he is now, where to be, and how to put his hand up.

"I just found myself now, Thank God."

Irish Independent

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