Axel Foley’s death puts rugby in perspective for Keith Earls
Versatile Munster winger will win his 54th cap for Ireland against Australia
Keith Earls: “I’ve taken rugby in a completely different way now because of Axel’s death.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Earls is not apologising for the tip tackle on Fraser Brown which resulted in a red card and two-match suspension.
“It was a massive game, it meant a lot to us,” began the 29-year-old.
“It was a tough week in general from burying your head coach and then an hour later doing a captain’s run.It’s just not right.
“I suppose the only thing I do apologise for – I don’t apologise for anything else – is kicking the bottles on the side of the pitch. I wouldn’t like to see young lads doing that at underage or some young lad at Thomond Park.
“I suppose I’ve been waiting to be interviewed to apologise for that. I don’t apologise for the rest of it. I spoke to Fraser Brown on the phone and I felt he could have done a bit more. Yes, I did lift his leg but I felt he could have done a bit more to save the impact, the way he went, I thought he was going for it a small bit to be honest with you.
“I spoke to him and he said he was just trying to protect himself. I felt I was cheated really going off the pitch, they denied me an opportunity to put in a performance for my head coach and the Munster supporters so I kind of lost it a bit coming off the pitch.”
The reaction was understandable, having been sent off after 17 minutes, even if he was unusually pumped up.
“No, I was relaxed. I was really looking forward to it...We were relaxed. The week was crazy but for a lot of us it put things in perspective. Down in Munster it has been a tough two years.
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“Axel went through a rough two years and we kind of said ‘He’s not here, his wife and kids are at home, their life has been turned upside down’ and we got worried about a lot of rugby matches. It’s stupid really, we just need to go out relax, perform and take the chances we were creating and that’s what we did against Glasgow and ever since.
“It’s a pity it’s after taking for our head coach to die for us to play the way he wanted us to play. That’s the way it is.”
The Munster performances ever since have been outstanding, like the victory in Belfast and beating the Maori.
“Yeah. I think that was the thing with a lot of the young lads who came through. They spoke about this Munster family and probably thought ‘jeez, this thing is a bit of a myth’ because we had been shocking for two years.
“Just the response of all the ex-players around that week and how much together Munster actually is. Some of the stuff that went on for Axel and they were like ‘this thing is for real’.
“Even myself, it was mind-blowing, some of the tributes to him. People coming from Australia, John Langford and that lads coming home from Australia. It was ridiculous. I think that hit home with the young lads and they’re really starting to play now which is great.”
The mourning continues.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of him and think about his family and his kids. I had the concussion for the Paris game so I wasn’t there,” Earls continued. “But I think Axel was very comfortable in his role. He didn’t have to deal with the man management point of view, the province as a whole or dealing with media. He just got to coach.
“You’d say something if it was two years ago when he dies, you would have been like ‘yeah, jeez he’s stressed. The stress of the job has done it to him’ but he was actually really happy. He was getting messages across clear. Himself and Rassie were really starting to click. We would have been heading in the right direction anyway but it’s a different situation now the way it’s after going.”
Earls will win his 54th cap for Ireland against Australia, taking the 11 jersey off Simon Zebo, who is striving to recover from injury to make the bench.
“I suppose I can only do what I can do when I get my chance. I felt good going into that game. I’ve taken rugby in a completely different way now because of Axel’s death. I get to go home to my family every day.
“Rugby to me now, obviously it’s a massive part of my life but it’s sport at the end of the day. That has really opened my eyes. I never enjoyed the highs, which is weird because I thought rugby was everything [but] it’s straight on to the next week and next game. The lows are a million times worse than the highs.
“I suppose that is something Rassie has brought in now with Munster. If we win a game, we’ll all have one drink with each other in the dressing room to celebrate the victory and enjoy the win – to enjoy the moment – and we’ll move on on the Monday. There’s no speaking in the dressing room straight afterwards and not enjoying it. Enjoying the wins is the main thing.”
After Munster won at Kingspan Stadium the Ulster players came into their dressing room for beers.
“It’s how relationships are built. I’m proud of the whole community; proud of the four provinces of Ireland. There has been a massive response. Ulster, Leinster. they’ve all went through some bad circumstances so the way everything comes together from a game of rugby is unbelievable and Ulster coming in for a drink with the lads was unbelievable, especially after losing at home, at Kingspan. It just shows that there is more to rugby.”