Earls on more than a wing and a prayer


IRELAND v FRANCE: Keith Earls may not like the versatile tag but it makes him invaluable, writes GERRY THORNLEY

HE’S AN awful worrier, he really is. He readily admits it, he knows it better than anyone, but he can’t help it. It’s just his nature. He hasn’t changed and he probably never will now.

Keith Earls has started six of Ireland’s last seven internationals, the only exception being the seasonal opener in Murrayfield last Saturday week (not exactly the worst of the last seven to miss). He was a regular starter throughout the Six Nations on the left wing and then probably played his best game when moved to fullback in the win over England.

Admittedly, such was Ireland’s dominance that day that Earls didn’t have to make a single tackle. But as a unit, that was the best performance by an Irish backline in the last year or so and Earls was a constant danger with his running game. He’s always had real wheels and, one-on-one, can be lethal.

He returned at outside centre in the absence of you-know-who in Bordeaux, and looked dangerous with the few scraps that came his way (another source of frustration). He’s reportedly flying in training. He’s nailed on to go to New Zealand. And yet, and yet . . .

Ever since he broke onto the scene he’s always hated the description “utility back”. Hence he was delighted to be getting a run at left wing, but in his last three tests he’s worn the numbers 11, 15 and 13. The way Earls sees it, his versatility may help him to make match-day squads but hinder his chances of making the team.

“Yeah, exactly. I’ve said in all my interviews that the one jersey I don’t want is No 22.”

However, given the stated policy to give everyone two and a bit games, odds are he’ll wear 22 once over the next two Saturdays.

The Irish number 13 jersey comes with a certain standard to it as well. Ask him how he found playing there in Bordeaux and he sighs a little wearily: “Yeah, it’s been a rollercoaster. I was just getting used to the wing again and being pushed into 13; a new defensive role, a new attacking role and you have to be a bit more vocal in bossing forwards around.

“But you have to do what’s best for the team. Obviously the main man was missing and I got my chance at 13. Hopefully I’ll get a chance this week as well because I don’t feel I did myself justice on Saturday.”

Ask him if his versatility has counted against him in the past and he says: “Maybe it has. I’m trying to cement down . . . I felt I was in good form in the Six Nations on the wing. When I came back with Munster I felt good as well. I’m being pushed in to the centre; it’s another good opportunity for me.”

Hmm. That didn’t sound entirely convincing and this squad rotation business only adds to his fretting. He’d watch others, such as Andrew Trimble and Luke Fitzgerald over the last two games, play in “his” position and note how well they’re playing.

Yet, in a perverse way, he admits it’s also what keeps him on his toes. “I end up going into a zone when I see fellas playing well because I want to get there, be better, do everything 100 per cent. That’s the way it’s been going the last couple of weeks in pre-season. The lads have been looking sharp and we’re keeping each other on our toes, which is good.”

Some of this almost sounds like a public cry for help, except that Earls is just being as transparent as ever. He also admitted that he had not outlined his concerns to Declan Kidney. “No, no I haven’t spoken to Declan. Whatever is best for my team-mates and whatever is best for my team, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Mention fullback and he immediately says: “Yeah but then there’s Felix Jones as well.” So you remind him how well it went for him, the backline and the team against England, and how fullback gives him more licence to roam.

“You’re confusing me now,” he says with a smile. “You’re telling me what my best position is. I think the positions which give me the free role to do whatever I want. I did enjoy full back that day. The free role, wing or full back, I don’t know, where I don’t have to be bossing forwards around or making space for other fellas. I just want to be out there and running around like a maniac.”

The way Earls describes it, he doesn’t seem to like the added responsibility of “bossing” team-mates.

“Tony McGahan has drilled it into my head since I came in as a centre. I’d been contemplating giving up rugby at the start because of Tony,” he says with mock exaggeration, for the son of Ger Earls was born to play rugby.

“He was just non-stop abusing me, telling me what to do but in fairness it made me a better player and more vocal on the pitch, telling fellas what to do. There’s been forwards coming up to me and saying ‘Aw Jesus, thanks a million for telling me to do this and do that’, which is quite good as well.”

Ultimately though, he still believes life will settle down on the wing given Jones “has cemented himself as the Munster fullback” and Munster are likely to sign a centre for next season. In the meantime, he’s itching to make a mark at the World Cup and before that, to get another run or two, all the better if it’s against France again.

“I enjoy it but it’s strange because you don’t know what they’re going to do. They’re obviously passionate about their running.

“There isn’t much kicking, they’d run it from their own line whereas if you’re playing against South Africa, you can get an extra few steps to work back but with the French you don’t know what they’re going to do. But it’s exciting because they like to run the ball.”

Just like himself.