Keith Earls out to right some wrongs against Italy

Munster winger conveys sense of pain the Ireland squad feels in the wake of the defeat to Scotland

 Keith Earls  in action during Ireland’s disappointing defeat to Scotland in the opening  Six Nations match at Murrayfield. Photograph: Inpho

Keith Earls in action during Ireland’s disappointing defeat to Scotland in the opening Six Nations match at Murrayfield. Photograph: Inpho

 

This week in the lead in to a Six Nations match, Ireland’s team base at Carton House has a conveyer belt feel.

Around the old reading rooms, where the interviews are conducted, there has been a lack of glasnost and a well-rehearsed chorus line that has ranged from ‘systematic failure’ to “learn from mistakes” but with no one to blame.

It’s a modern rugby phenomenon, acres of newsprint with angled stories but little revelation. Journalists seize on a word or phrase and weave it into a narrative.

Andy Farrell is excited about the “challenge ahead”. John Ryan is hoping to make “an impact” and everyone has “massive respect” for the Italians.

They are the strictures of the communal interview but in Keith Earls, there has always been the whiff of self doubt, the honesty of a reflective personality.

“Yeah it is, it’s not healthy,” he replies to a question about the world being on his shoulders after Scotland. “Rugby isn’t healthy for the mind,” he adds.

It’s pretty certain Earls articulates what the rest of the beaten down players are feeling, acute failure. Their burden is often lost in the minutiae of line breaks, missed tackles or how the referee interprets the breakdown. Their pressure is under played.

Team hurt

Like the others he sings off the same hymn sheet but in his voice is a sense of personal loss and team hurt. It is about his understanding of what losing means and where the team sits in public affections and expectations and how they have dropped the ball.

“It’s up and down,” he adds. “You could be on top of the world one week and then you’re back down. You’re representing your country. You know the whole nation is watching you. Then when you have a poor start, you come so close and then you lose.

“It’s extremely disappointing. We had unbelievable opportunities and we beat ourselves. We let Scotland beat us.”

Who made the mistakes, or why Ireland became narrow and just where the decision makers were in the first half to change the direction of the match in real time, will never be known.

Farrell, the Irish defence coach, said straight out that, although he knew he would not say. No Perestroika just yet.

“Look as you say we try and stay within the system but the system isn’t always going to be perfect,” says Earls reverting to the party line. “It’s why you have your decision makers on the edge, who can solve a problem.  But we didn’t solve any problems at the weekend when we were down a number or two.

“We spoke under the posts about getting ourselves right. We spoke about slowing their ball down, back-ending in the tackle and we didn’t do that.”

But the Irish winger’s head-wrecking experience in defeat seems a positive thing for rugby, if for no other reason than it indicates how much attached the players remain to those who support them.

Shared disappointment

His disappointment is a shared one because of the lack of distance between his place in the Irish team and his Limerick base, Seán O’Brien and Tullow, or Rory Best and his farming community just across the border. For all the money sloshing around at rugby’s top level the players still belong in the parish.

But Earls’ self-recrimination drives ambition to get it right next time against dangerous Italy and Conor O’Shea. Ireland, remembering 2013 and the last World Cup will proceed with caution.

“Unfortunately I busted my shoulder as well that day,” says Earls of the defeat four years ago. “They came after us big time . Luke Fitzgerald got injured, Luke Marshall got injured. They pretty much beat us up. It was tough.

“Was it 19-6 or 19-9 in the Olympic Park? If you give them that belief they’ll hang in there.”

Above all Ireland’s sense of belonging in the upper rugby tier has been offended by the Scottish defeat. After November the team felt and believed they were better than that.

“You can’t give them belief,” says Earls. “They’re a passionate team. If you give them belief, they will come after you.”

Strange turn around, that Italy now is questioning Irish confidence.

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