Earls determined to aspire to the all-round playing life of Brian
For over a decade certain shirts were borrowed. There were no words spoken or deals made or promises agreed. But there was a complicity that certain numbers belonged on certain backs and they would only be handed down when the owner gave permission. In the locker-room they said every shirt was borrowed but with O’Connell, D’Arcy and O’Driscoll at their peak that wasn’t quite true.
The old rules look weary now. Threadbare and under greater pressure, Keith Earls has the right to see Brian O’Driscoll in the twilight of a breathless career and now, without being heretical, more vulnerable than he has ever been.
Injured and having to watch the three November Test matches, O’Driscoll is far from out at pasture but during these days, offering opportunities to players is more fraught even for him than it might have been before.
“What Brian does is what he does. He is the all-round centre,” says Earls respectfully.
“He’s been around a long time. His pace is . . . I wouldn’t say gone because he’s still a quick fella. Maybe it’s there over 20 yards maybe not over 50. We’ve often had the craic about that at training but I’d like to think my opposition would worry about my pace.
“Brian is a great decision- maker, he runs unbelievable lines. He’s nice soft hands, which I’ve been working on a good bit. I’ve been happy with it. I’m trying to become the Brian O’Driscoll, the all-round player. When you have all that armour, it’s hard for your opposition to analyse you.”
Frustration because of injury, position or selection has often moved Earls to narrow his rugby world. He looks back now and feels the public claims on playing at outside centre may have sounded shrill and intemperate, whereas a longer game and vow of silence would have created less attention and pressure. Wiser and actively fitting his game into the mould that O’Driscoll has patented, his play now is more inclusive of the players around him and less the ripping roadster ever-anxious to burn an opponent at every opportunity.
“Obviously, I prefer to play 13 but I am happy to play anywhere,” he explains. “I didn’t want to set in stone and throw my toys out of the pram that I only want to play 13. I don’t want people thinking I’m a grumpy oul fellah who will only play 13, when I play for my country.
“Now, I’d prefer to put fellas under the sticks rather than score myself. I get a better feeling about that and I’ve been doing that a bit this year. I’ve been throwing the skip passes and I’ve been decision-making a bit more. That comes from Rob (Penney) and Simon (Mannix) coming in and putting pressure on me, which is great.”
Different game plan
During the summer Munster coach Penney brought in two new buffed centres, James Downey and Casey Laulala. It didn’t make life any easier for Earls and for a player who excels with confidence, the optics looked threatening. But with Penney came not just a different game plan for Munster but a view to broadening Earls’ vision. The blinkers came off with the hope that his untethering would create more avenues for the players around him. Of course he’ll still have a go.
“I kind of panicked a small bit during the summer and maybe that’s why I spoke about it so much,” he says. “We signed two world-class centres but after speaking to Rob he said to me that the lads aren’t always going to be fit, while if they are I might have to slide on to the wing sometimes.
“Last year it was all about me having a go and seeing what happens after that. It’s (now) about trying to expand my game under the two lads, which is great, be a decision-maker, not just give the ball to him and leave him run.”
Jaco Taute, 91 kilos and 1.89 metres is tomorrow’s brawny side of the Springbok centre partnership with the more cerebral Jean de Villiers inside him.
“I played with him in the centre a good few times,” says Earls of De Villiers. He’s a really intelligent rugby player, can do things off the cuff that you wouldn’t see any other centre doing and he’s an awfully physical man.”
Earls may dare to strike out at 13. He should. O’Driscoll would. For now the shirt is on borrow.
Tuohy extends stay Until 2015
International second row Dan Tuohy has agreed a contract extension to remain at Ulster until June 2015. The 27-year-old joined the province ahead of the 2009/10 season from Exeter Chiefs and has amassed 74 caps in just over three seasons.