Getting a kick from running ball


RUGBY: GERRY THORNLEYtalks to Keith Earls, who used to slightly resent being pushed from position to position but now welcomes it and reasons it can be beneficial . . . to a point

THEY’RE NOT being thrown into the coliseum today and they won’t be fed to the tigers, merely the Azzurri, but it’s hard not to feel both excited and a tad apprehensive for Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald. With the ravages to Ireland’s back three, they are being chucked in at the deep end a little and what’s more, in tandem with a debutant (Fergus McFadden).

None of the trio of young tyros would quite possibly be playing but for five of Ireland’s more established back-three performers, with over 200 caps and 60-plus tries between them, and four of them Lions, are sidelined. Nonetheless, opportunity knocks. Earls and Fitzgerald are also two of a kind, two gifted, 23-year-old game-breaking players, blessed with both quick wheels and good feet, and thus a rare ability to beat the first tackle. They are also two young men in a hurry, whose most common bond heretofore at Test level is probably frustration.

Although they played for a full 80 minutes together on Earls’ debut in the 55-0 win over Canada in November 2008, that remains the only time they’ve started a game together in their professional careers. The only time they’ve played together since was for the last four minutes against South Africa last November when Earls was a late replacement at fullback with Fitzgerald on the wing. Ironically, when Fitzgerald suffered his knee injuries against Australia last season and New Zealand this season, it was Earls who replaced him on the wing.

Born 19 days apart, they’ve been contemporaries too, the stand-out talents in their school years and both members of Ireland’s schools team and the Under-20 Grand Slam winning side. So plenty of good memories. “I’ve know Luke all the way up since schools,” says Earls, and he smiles fondly when recalling one memory. “I remember playing with him for the Irish schools at Musgrave Park against England. He was at 15 and I was at 12. He just showed this dummy and stepped and left one of the English players flat on his arse. I remember thinking ‘jeez, this guys is unreal’.”

It doesn’t help that neither goes into this game in prime nick. While Fitzgerald has had his season interrupted by a two-month lay-off after that All Blacks game, after an injury-delayed start, Earls has suffered a little with being given poor ball in congested midfields. “Not, it’s been frustrating. I haven’t been playing with a smile on my face this season, trying to get back from injury. After having the groin problems last season I came back in pre-season but then in the last pre-season game, a week before the Magners League started, I went over on my ankle.

“When I came back I was playing through pain and I wasn’t 100 per cent right for a good few games, and that’s very frustrating,” he repeats with typical candour. “I guess I’m the kind of player who wants everything to be perfect. I want to be 100 per cent fit, playing well, scoring tries and being the first name on the team-sheet. When it’s not like that I get very frustrated.”

It helps his father, Ger, being an ex-Young Munster and Munster flanker, is such a sounding board. “I went round to my mum and dad for dinner one Sunday and my dad was saying to me ‘what’s wrong? You’re playing with your head in your chest,” and as if to emphasise the point Earls puts his head to down to illustrate his hangdog demeanour. “He told me to start relaxing and enjoying the game more. And I’m a better player when I’m relaxed and enjoying myself. So I told myself to stop putting so much pressure on myself and to start enjoying playing more.”

Players don’t make good spectators, but you sense Earls hates not playing even more than most players. “It got me a bit depressed. I tend to put on weight, not through drink. I had a couple of pints last weekend but I’d say I’ve only had a drink twice in the last six months. But I love my food and I tend to eat more when I’m not playing. I ballooned up to 97kg.”

Hmm, these things are relative.

“No, really, I even had a bit of a stomach. If you look at the tape of the London Irish (away) game after about 23 minutes I was doubled over. The ball hadn’t gone out of play for about four or five minutes. I was shattered and praying for somebody to kick the ball out. But I’ve been working hard with my nutritionist and in the last two weeks I’ve lost 2kg. I’m down to 91kg. I feel lighter and I feel better for it.”

He has moved out a few years now but remains umbilically tied to his trusted network of family, friends and neighbours as well as Munster. He has been going out with the same girl for a decade. His family will not be in Rome, his mum wanting to be with her daughter and his dad having to stay in Limerick. “He’s a taxi driver and weekends are his busiest time. In the current climate taxi drivers need to work weekends. Hopefully they’ll be there for the home game against France if I’m fortunate enough to get picked.” Again that hint of self-doubt. Relax Earlsy. You’re a class player. No bother to you. But he’ll probably never change. It may even be what drives him. “It’s just the way I am and I think all my family are a little like that. But I’ve won 13 caps and I am getting more confident in myself and I do believe in myself more.”

He talks of the “pretty horrible” week in the fall-out of Munster’s Heineken Cup exit for the first time in 13 years. “That’s not the kind of history you want to be making.” That weighs heavily on all who represent the Munster red, he admits, but tries to keep the “failure” in perspective. “Nobody died, there was no bereavement. You try and tell yourself these things and it’s true. We went out of a tournament but it was only a game of rugby. There’s far worse things and more serious things happening in the world at the moment.”

At least the campaign ended on a high. The bonus point and that Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final was clinched in the last play of the match when Earls pounced on a grubber by Ronan O’Gara, weighted to land on the proverbial six pence just inside the corner flag and over the try line. “It’s ridiculous the way he does that,” says Earls with a knowing smile and mock bewilderment. “It even bounced up into my hands.”

Where before he slightly resented being pushed around from position to position, varying between fullback, centre and wing, now he welcomes it and reasons that it can be beneficial, albeit with limitations. “I think two positions are enough,” he says, with an increased maturity and self-awareness, which actually belies any jealousy of Fitzgerald being given the nod at fullback, the position Earls once coveted amongst all others. “I think to be honest fullback is gone for me now. I haven’t played there since the Lions tour. But moving from centre to wing is a good, fresh challenge for me.”

Having couple of strings to your bow is a handy commodity, not least with a World Cup in mind? “It (versatility) can work both ways. It can be good for you and bad for you. I hate it when I see people writing that ‘Earls would made a good impact selection off the bench’. I want to be more than that.”

As that late try against Irish showed, Earls has more chances to take on players one-on-one and to finish off tries on the wing. “Yeah, I like that about playing on the wing. It can be very crowded at 13 and there is more space to attack out there (the wing).”

Earls can also reflect on last season with Ireland. Benefiting, ironically, from Fitzgerald’s misfortune when rupturing his knee against Australia, Earls came into the team against Fiji and South Africa and regained the left-wing berth from Andrew Trimble after the Six Nations opener against Italy. In all, Earls started six Tests on the left wing in which he scored five tries. An impressive strike rate. “Yeah, I’ve 13 caps now and six tries,” he says, allowing himself a moment of relative satisfaction. Not for long. “But it should have been eight tries,” and he recounts two that went abegging against New Zealand and Argentina.

Nevertheless, above all, Earls was born to run with the ball, and is at his best when one-on-one. “If I was five metres from my own line I’d prefer to run with it than kick it, although the coaches mightn’t be too happy. I’ve done a bit of work on my kicking but even playing at centre I hardly kicked, which I probably should have done as it’s a good position to kick from.”

Being part of a back three, he’ll be obliged to kick occasionally and actually can give it an almighty welly if so inclined. But the changed laws have opened up more possibilities for counter-attacking than was the case in his breakthrough season. “We have even been working on some counter-attacking moves involving switches within the back three.”

He’s excited by this prospect, and of playing alongside kindred young spirits in Fitzgerald and McFadden, even if you’d reckon that caution will be their watchword initially today.