Monday 18 February 2019

Keith Earls times perfect return

Munster star in prime form to stake claim for World Cup spot

Keith Earls will be hoping to build on his try-scoring performance against Wales
Keith Earls will be hoping to build on his try-scoring performance against Wales
David Kelly

David Kelly

The numbers shouldn't be adding up to Keith Earls having any chance of making this World Cup squad.

Sure, he had 39 caps but none of them were under Joe Schmidt; he hadn't played for some 29 months, in which time Ireland had completed two Championship titles without him.

There were seven other wingers jostling for limited accommodation in the World Cup departure lounge and, after a mostly sleepless night, a couple of slipped tackles in the opening minutes last Saturday made one fear that the Moyross man needed something special to prosper.

Thankfully, Earls is a player capable of doing just that; it is early days yet but he may just have jinked his way beyond the queue of wide men hoping to curry favour with the coach.

The numbers may not offer solace but the pretty pictures he presents on the field of play offer a resounding tribute to his enduring class, which has suddenly propelled him to the centre of attention after such a lengthy absence from the international arena.

Versatility

His versatility remains a boon which, arguably, may in a jot see him surpass Fergus McFadden, who struggled to demand inclusion following Saturday's effort, while Craig Gilroy and Dave Kearney, sitting at home, would have winced enviously at Earls' wizardry.

"I probably had the worst 24 hours of my life with nerves but it was great to get back and get my first game under Joe Schmidt. Thankfully, everything went well.

"There were a couple of individuals who put their hand up, especially in a hostile environment coming over here with passionate Welsh fans roaring and shouting at you.

"It was a first game in a couple of months for a few fellas so we were sucking diesel a bit."

Ulster's Darren Cave, reunited with his erstwhile 2007 U-20 Grand Slam team-mate, and subsequent Churchill Cup midfield partner from 2009 (when Cave played outside him), saw at first-hand just what his fellow 27-year-old can offer.

"His form has been absolutely incredible since the end of last season," says Cave of the player who has recovered admirably since January following complicated knee surgery.

"We were keeping an eye on him at Ulster because we knew we were going to have to play them and yet he still managed to score in that game.

"Centre or wing, wherever he plays, his feet are electric. It's nice to play with players of that quality.

"We dovetailed well, I thought. I've always had a relationship going back to that U-20s team. That's eight years ago so I've known him a long time.

"So I'd say we did look good together but then it's easy to look good together when you have his sort of quality outside you."

Cave has often ruefully noted that he would have preferred it had Earls concentrated on being a winger; the player himself has struggled to shake off his versatility tag too.

Ironically, despite his own good impression, some decent trucking up and a wonderful shimmy to score his side's second try amidst authoritative, co-operative defence in their channel, Cave may suffer World Cup exclusion because of his peer's prowess.

Audition

Gordon D'Arcy is also in dire need of producing his best form of old, perhaps with Cave once again featuring at outside centre when the Scots visit town this weekend.

It could be his final audition.

"It's hard to know," Cave says of Schmidt's utterly unreadable intentions. "The one thing about over-thinking all that is that it could work against you.

"For me, I just wanted to play as well as I could, Earlsy wanted to play as well as he could. And it was in both of our interests to work together so that we went as well as possible.

"He got man of the match and I think he had a great game. And it's upwards an onwards now and you don't know what selections are going to be.

"It's about finding the balance between playing your own game and trying to help the game. It's something we did quite well against Wales.

"If you look across the board, some of the boys up front gave us a really good platform. The tries were shared out between five different scorers which is always a good sign.

"For my try, I just stepped off my left and their back-row was tucked away because of the job the boys had done up front in our scrum which was brilliant all day. So it shows it's the ultimate team game.

"I thought our pack was really very good. Wales looked as if they had a nice attacking platform from scrum and it was really disrupted.

"That's where your defence starts, from the set-piece and then two passes later Andrew Trimble is smacking someone in contact and that produces a try.

"A lot of players played well. And if you play well, that makes it easier for the guy beside you to play well," Cave added.

"I don't think there were that many standout players. It wasn't a perfect performance, but it was a decent starting point.

"I'd love to get another chance. It's a bit early for me to be thinking about that, I'll take it when it comes."

As Saturday's display demonstrated, Cave will not be alone in harbouring such a burning ambition.

Back-line headaches

There are effectively just four three-quarter slots available for the 11 contenders, presuming Joe Schmidt brings six half-backs and last season's Championship stalwarts. Here's our verdict on their chances . . .

Darren Cave: Solid against Wales but an even better display against Scotland may not be enough. Will be unlucky to miss out.

Gordon D'Arcy: May only get one chance to audition against Scotland and may now be relying on vast experience to make the cut.

Keith Earls: Spectacular man of the match performance against Wales has propelled him into the frame.

Luke Fitzgerald: Lost out four years ago but seems to be earmarked by Schmidt to feature in first World Cup.

Craig Gilroy: Sadly, may not even get a game as in danger of being cut this week.

Felix Jones: Solid if unspectacular against Wales but remains a firm favourite of the coach; only injury or an unlikely dud display may eject him.

Dave Kearney: Another who will be anxiously hoping to remain on board this week.

Fergus McFadden: Accumulated injuries have stunted his World Cup bid and he is struggling to recapture former form.

Noel Reid: Apparently impressing in training but would need an outlandish set of circumstances to confirm bolter status.

Andrew Trimble: More foot problems may hinder Ulster man's chances and the fact that problem is being scanned may suggest further complications.

Simon Zebo: Once again showed the X-factor against Wales but coach has long been ambiguous about him, dropping him during Six Nations.

Irish Independent

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