Keith Earls leading by example in new role as senior player
In-form Ireland back says ‘phenomenal’ youngster Jacob Stockdale ticks all the boxes
Ireland and Munster player Keith Earls expects a physical game on Saturday when Ireland play South Africa. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Keith Earls knows that he’s getting older because there is a surfeit of reminders from the glut of young faces in the Ireland squad to the choice of tunes in the gym. Where once he sidled up to the glean information from the experienced cohort, he is now approached to share his knowledge.
Nowhere was this more apparent than the summer tour to the USA and Japan. His role was a standard bearer as well as a team-mate, emphasising the importance of attitude and application irrespective of the opposition.
It’s not as if he’s ancient, he celebrated his 30th birthday last month and it’s arguable that there are few players in better form in the last 12 months either in the red of Munster or the green of Ireland. He scored five tries in four Tests, starting last November against Canada and culminating with a brace against Italy.
Despite not drawing a blank in that context in the other three fixtures in the Six Nations, he crossed for four tries in the summer, two against the USA – Opta proclaimed since they began compiling statistics that he had broken the individual record for most clean breaks in a Test match with nine – and another brace in the first Test against Japan, bring his tally to nine tries in the last 10 Test matches.
He acknowledges that the physiology of the tyros is striking. “The young lads now are freaks, they’re bigger, faster and stronger at a younger age [and] they are coming through really quickly.” One of those is six foot three inch, 21-year-old Jacob Stockdale, who may convince Ireland coach Joe Schmidt in training this week that he is worth a start on the opposite wing to Earls, against the Springboks on Saturday, despite having won just two senior caps.
Earls enthused: “He’s a phenomenal talent; from the moment I saw him and trained with him, I knew he had something special. He’s been playing unbelievably for Ulster this year, he’s massive, he’s fast, he’s an incredible finisher and he’s so strong too; he ticks all the boxes. He’ll make mistakes as he gets older, and it will start getting difficult when teams start figuring him out and what he’s about, but in my eyes right now, he ticks every box.”
Among the “newbies” is Connacht centre Bundee Aki, hoping to make his Ireland debut at the weekend. Earls proclaimed that Aki has been a diligent student, spending time on the computer studying his homework but without losing his personality. “He’s an experienced player, he’s won the Super Rugby [Championship] with the Chiefs, he’s won a [Pro12] trophy with Connacht, he’s been playing unbelievably.
“He was player of the year in our league last year, and he’s well enough experienced, so hopefully he’ll get his shot. The lads in general are trying to make him feel comfortable like any new lad. That’s what we try and do, we’ll try and take the piss out of him a bit but then if you’re not being slagged then you know you’re in trouble. He’s just been himself, he’s great.”
Earls has played against South Africa on five occasions for Ireland, losing three and winning two, lining in a variety of positions – centre, replacement fullback and three times on the wing – although a regular adversary JP Pietersen, now with French club Toulon won’t be patrolling the same corridor of the pitch.
Ireland have spent a little time dusting off the footage of their three Tests against the Springboks in 2016, a series they probably should have won. “Yeah, we have gone back looking at them videos: we were so close to winning a series down there and a lot of it was around our own mistakes that we have, hopefully, learnt from.
“But, look, it’s going to be a physical game on Saturday. It’s going to be the same, South Africa went through a poor patch there for a while but they seem to have found themselves again and they’re on the up. They’re going to be extremely dangerous and I think they’ll be better than 2016. You know it’s going to be physical and out wide they’re big and fast.
“It doesn’t matter about tries or fancy play, it’s about getting a win at international level and a lot of those games would have been down to discipline and kickers kicking their kicks.”
South Africa enter Saturday’s game on the back a Rugby Championship campaign while Ireland’s preparation is limited to less than half a dozen training sessions. Earls isn’t looking for mitigation. He reckons Ireland will be ready and so will he; comfortable in his role as a senior player.