Evergreen Keith Earls more than a try scorer for Ireland

Irish coach Andy Farrell has kept faith in the 35-year-old in preference to younger players

Evergreen Keith Earls. The 35-year-old’s selection in Ireland coach Andy Farrell’s Six Nations squad on Thursday was yet another reminder that numbers and age unevenly mix.

Last summer on Ireland’s trip to New Zealand, the veteran was asked to captain the team in their second match against the Maori All Blacks in the Sky Stadium in Wellington.

It was Earls’ first time wearing the Irish armband and if that represented a message from Farrell, it was that the Munster winger still occupied a place in his thinking just over a year out from the start of the World Cup in France.

That the Earls name still had currency was borne out when Farrell decided on him as one of his 17-man backline team, while boldly locking out, for now, his younger Munster outhalf team-mate Joey Carbery.


Bucking the provincial selection pattern, Farrell also went for Bundee Aki, who has not played for Connacht recently for reasons that the province has not explained in detail, while also choosing Conor Murray as a scrumhalf even though he did not start in Munster’s win last weekend against Northampton Saints.

Coach Graham Rowntree preferred Craig Casey at nine and brought on Paddy Patterson, who has not been selected on the Irish panel. Earls did not start for Munster either last week, with Calvin Nash and Shane Daly occupying the wing slots.

Nevertheless, Earls’ selection is testament to a player who has never been less than ready and who, with 98 Irish caps and a 2009 Lions tour to South Africa, brings a wealth of experience into the set-up with which he has been involved since his debut for Ireland in November 2008 against Canada in Thomond Park.

Only captain Johnny Sexton (109) and Murray (100) surpass his international capital and, with Farrell thinking of the bigger picture, Earls’ knowledge brings its own currency.

In May he signed a contract extension with Munster until the end of the Rugby World Cup this year and since then has played twice for Ireland.

What David Nucifora, the IRFU performance director, said at the time also dovetails into Farrell’s greater squad thinking.

“Keith is an integral part of the leadership group in the national set-up and his experience and game understanding continues to produce quality performances and he is also playing a strong role in guiding less experienced players and developing their understanding of what it takes to compete at the international level,” said Nucifora.

His 34 tries have also made Earls the second most prolific try scorer for Ireland behind former captain Brian O’Driscoll.

And the scores have come in relevant games. Along with Garry Ringrose and Aki, Earls scored the first of three Irish tries – with Garry Ringrose and Aki going over after him – against the All Blacks in the first Test last summer.

He also came on after 68 minutes to see out the historic 22-32 third Test win as Ireland clinched a New Zealand series for the first time. All in all, good reason for Farrell not to turn away this time.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times