Keith Earls rates Paris win his proudest day in an Irish jersey

Munster stalwart says Foley’s death has taught him to keep rugby in perspective

Ireland’s Keith Earls  is tackled by France’s  Henry Chavancy  and Geoffrey Palis at  the Stade de France. “It’s a crazy game. It does strange things to you. ” Photograph: Voan Valat/EPA

Ireland’s Keith Earls is tackled by France’s Henry Chavancy and Geoffrey Palis at the Stade de France. “It’s a crazy game. It does strange things to you. ” Photograph: Voan Valat/EPA

 

No less than Johnny Sexton, now Keith Earls will always have Paris, February 3rd, 2018.

Having been sidelined for the entirety of Ireland’s 2013-14 and 14-15 seasons, which included those two Six Nations triumphs, the Irish winger has rated last Saturday’s win in the Stade de France – his first there in three attempts – as the highlight of his 63-cap career to date.

No less than Iain Henderson, when reclaiming Sexton’s 22 metre restart, the first of three crunch endgame kicks by the Irish outhalf, Earls also played a key role in that epic, 41-phase drive to victory when catching Sexton’s cross-kick with the 80 minute mark having passed.

As with Henderson on the left, he had apparently been urged to hug the right touchline by Sexton even before the outhalf had gathered Antony Belleau’s missed penalty.

So what was he thinking as Sexton delivered that pinpoint cross-kick pass?

“To catch it at all costs!” admitted a smiling Earls at the team’s base at Carton House yesterday.

“It was a nice piece of play out of him. It was actually a perfect kick because it made me come in off the touchline. If it was any closer to the touchline, it probably could have been easier to knock me into touch. It wasn’t over my head. I was able to come at it at an angle.”

Earls had looked rightly aghast when wrongly called for a knock-on which led to the scrum penalty that Belleau missed. Describing that decision as “a bit harsh” Earls added: “I suppose some players probably could have gone into their shells after that. I was just happy myself that in a pressure environment, Johnny had the balls to kick it over to me.”

Earls’ footwork in stepping away from Virini Vakatawa and Henry Chavancy

also afforded vital time for Rob Kearney and Robbie Henshaw to arrive on the scene, and his backs’ coach at Munster, Felix Jones, played a part in those moments.

“Felix [Jones] has a good saying in Munster for the lads out wide – ‘if you’re stuck out wide on your own you have to fight like a rat in a corner’. That stuck in my head as I was waiting for support to come.”

Earls was twice found in a little space early on, but increasingly slower ruck ball and Ireland losing their shape in attack contributed to his rations being reduced.

“It’s just the way the game went,” he says.

 Errors also crept into Ireland’s handling, whereupon they were all virtually foot and hand perfect for 41 phases over five minutes.

Concentration levels

“I suppose the concentration levels go through the roof,” said Earls, highlighting the work of the forwards, Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw, Fergus McFadden and “the freak Hendy” in reference to Henderson.

“It was probably the best bit of play I’ve been involved in my whole career,” he said, adding: “That game was definitely my proudest moment in my playing career because I haven’t won a Championship or anything like that. That was my first win in Paris and I suppose the way the game went, the last kick of the game, it was definitely my biggest moment.”

 Not that there’s any sense of the pressure being eased facing Italy at home on Saturday.

“Not a chance; not at international level anyway. It’s a different pressure on us to perform at home against a stubborn Italian side. There is always pressure to perform at home and get a win. We’ll have the favourites’ tag and it is a different pressure.”

There’s no point in getting stressed about a game of rugby. It’s not life-threatening; it’s all forgotten about when you retire

 It’s now almost a decade since Earls’s try-scoring debut against Canada at Thomond Park in November 2008. Then 21, he admits he is “definitely more professional” now.

“I probably took it for granted. I probably thought my talent would get me there alone. I found out from harsh lessons you need to keep working every day. That’s what I do now, constantly looking for an extra 1 per cent. That’s a 24-7 pursuit.”

 He’s a different athlete now too.

“I’m a lot lighter, I was a lot chubbier back then. I didn’t really look after myself back then. I’m faster and more agile now than I was then. I had bad habits from my parents eating Chinese on a Sunday night. It was changing all the time back then with diets. I got obsessed with trying to be heavy. Then I got obsessed with trying to be skinny.”

 He describes the 20-year-old Jordan Larmour as “a unique talent” who has been “flying it in training”, and says: “He’s a really nice kid as well. I’ve spent a bit of time with him playing darts and cards.”

Earls is envious of Larmour’s innate confidence.

“I envy all of them young lads. They’re incredible. I suppose when I came in first it was all about playing for Munster and ‘the fear’, with Paulie [O’Connell] and Rog [O’Gara] and all them. I suppose you drive yourself mad.”

 He has also learned over time to be calmer, albeit “unfortunately it took me about ten years”.

Events of recent times taught him to relax more.

 “I suppose Axel,” Earls said, in relation to the passing of his former team-mate and coach, Anthony Foley.

“I’ve said it before, and having kids as well. Chatting to Paulie a few weeks ago, there’s no point in getting stressed about a game of rugby. It’s not life-threatening; it’s all forgotten about when you retire. There’s worse going on in the world. It’s a crazy game. It does strange things to you.”

 He’s also become quite the wise old sage.

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