Most of the current Munster squad are inspired to emulate the celebrated heroes of the noughties having watched their then boyhood idols twice scale the Heineken Cup heights. But in Keith Earls’ case he had the closest view of all, and admits it’s something he dreams of emulating every day of his life.
Earls, then 20, was an unused replacement in the 2008 final in Cardiff when the province beat Toulouse to claim their second Cup in three years. Technically therefore, he is the only active Munster player with a winners’ medal, but in his mind, having only appeared in four League matches, but not having made his Euro debut by then, it doesn’t really count.
“Yeah, I think I’m the only one still from ’08 but I wouldn’t consider it as a winners’ medal. I had no interest in keeping it, my old man has it somewhere,” he said in reference to his dad Ger.
“I never really got on the pitch but it was great to be involved. But in my eyes I’ve no medal, you know?”
Resuming his and Munster’s 11th European campaign since that second triumph with Saturday’s visit of Castres to Thomond Park, and having missed the first two games against Exeter and Gloucester, Earls admitted: “Yeah, it’s all I think about every day.”
“I’ve ticked a few boxes in the last couple of years with Ireland and more recently two weeks ago with [the win over] New Zealand and we’ll concentrate on every game there is, but Europe is the ultimate here. The main thing is there’s loads of lads who’ve signed up who all have the one goal as well,” he added in reference to the dozen players who have signed contract extensions.
Noting that they’re mostly homegrown, Earls referenced Conor Murray’s re-signing over a month ago. “It’s brilliant that he’s the best player in the world and he wants to play his rugby here and win trophies here, which is a massive boost for us,” said Earls, who nearly joined Saracens in 2017 but last October signed another two year extension to keep him with Munster until June 2021.
Murray even switched to the right wing for the last 20 minutes of last Friday’s handsome victory over an admittedly under-strength Edinburgh, prior to which the speed of the scrumhalf’s pass helped give Munster’s outside backs additional time when scoring six first-half tries.
“I started laughing when I saw him,” admitted Earls of Murray finishing the game on the right wing. “He brings a calmness to the squad, and he controlled the game at the weekend.”
The first of Earls’ rapid-fire hat-trick, inside eight minutes and 20 seconds, was set up by Murray’s alert blindside pass off a maul. “He finally gave me a pass from five metres out as well, which he usually tucks and goes himself,” quipped Earls. “He’s a massive leader for us and he gives the lads at 10 a great help out with running the game, with kicking and with exiting, more importantly.”
Earls' second followed good work and offloads by another returning player, Chris Farrell, and Mike Haley, and he made a difficult finish look like a routine run-in for his third and 50th in Munster red. He still has his wheels.
“Yeah, yeah, feeling good” he says. “All the niggles out of the way. I had a bit of a hamstring before the Exeter game and got back in then. I’ve played three or four games now so the lungs are getting there as well.”
Earls can still recall a vintage Barry Murphy performance in the statement 46-9 win away to Castres in round five, when Tomás O’Leary starred on the wing, en route to the 2006 triumph.
Last season, Munster drew away to Castres and the latter’s interest had dimmed when coming to Limerick in round six before they went on to win the French Championship.
“They’re not Top14 champions for no reason. They’re playing intelligent rugby, they play a high-pressure game. They do kick a lot, but they’re not stupid either. They’ve some dangerous men on the wings.”
“Castres a different animal in Europe this year, not just France first, and they’re a passionate team. They don’t have superstars. You get the feel that it’s all about the community with them. They won the Top14 last year and it’s been a while since they’ve been in the knock-out stages or pushing for Europe. They are now probably putting all their eggs in one basket in Europe.”
“It’s going to be a massive challenge for us, end of story, no matter what team they send over. They’re a good quality side.”