Keith Earls takes flight for Ireland once more
Munster speed merchant has found rich vein of form having regained full fitness
He’s always had wheels. He’s always had the footwork to beat the first tackler. He’s always had a good skills-set and an eye for the try-line. Now, it seems, he has strength as well as speed to go with a new-found level of maturity and self-confidence.
Four years ago, Earls turned 24 on the day Ireland beat Italy in their final pool game in Dunedin to seal first place in a World Cup pool for the first time ever. He scored two tries that day and finished that tournament with five. He opened his account in this World Cup with another brace last Sunday, prior to turning 28 on Friday, two days before Ireland meet the Azzurri again.
Against Canada he had the physical strength to bump the Canadian fullback and leave him on the deck. He also looked as quick as ever when having the recovering pace to bring down George North in the Aviva warm-up, skating down the touchline for 40 metres to give Rob Kearney a try-scoring pass against Canada, and accelerating along the touchline for his first try against Romania.
No less than Donnacha Ryan achieving the quickest speed tests of his career at 30 years of age, for this we are almost certainly indebted yet again to the profound influence of Ireland’s strength and conditioning coach Jason Cowman.
His strength though is not from building up muscle. “No, I haven’t bulked up or anything like that. I don’t lift as heavy as I can anymore, or that I used to be able to in the gym. I was lifting big in the gym years ago trying to get up to 94/95kg and I kept breaking down. So we’ve spoken to the lads in Munster and spoken to Jason and we found a programme that’s good for me. Literally, I might just do one weights session a week and the rest is on the rehab and looking after myself.”
However, his game has always been about his acceleration and then maintaining his speed, and despite all the injuries, that thankfully remains in place.
“Yeah, I’m happy with my speed. But at the same time, I don’t really do much prior work in the gym like the lads, all the hopping and stuff, because of my knees. So I’m happy I haven’t lost all that. Some fellas taper off. They might lose a small bit of acceleration but I thank my genes that I’m still holding onto it, thank God.”
Cue his brace against Romania. “All the hard work was done inside me on the weekend,” he said. “It was a great pass out of Zeebs and a beautiful touch from Redser off his left foot, so it was good to get on the end of them.”
Earls revealed that Zebo had signalled his intentions for that wonderful, double-skip pass after both noticed the Romanian winger had pushed up and in.
“We’ve a good understating,” said Earls, smiling. “I think it was after one or two phases when he looked at me and I said ‘yeah, ready’ and we’ve been practicing them out in training. You saw when he put Felix [Jones] away against Wales in the first warm-up game and it was an incredible pass. He gave it everything.”
He plays down equalling Brian O’Driscoll’s Irish record of seven World Cup tries. “I think Drico wouldn’t look at that himself and I don’t want to look at it either. It’s nice to score tries, but I’d prefer the team to be winning rather than scoring tries.”
Peak of his powers
Notoriously hard on himself and self-doubting, a combination of other factors has meant he is more at ease with himself and thus, perhaps, hitting the peak of his powers.
Carefully managing his body and, touch wood, injury-free, the Schmidt regime has helped ensure he is well prepared and “more relaxed” come match weekend.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride since the last World Cup, injuries delaying his first game under Schmidt until the first of the warm-up games, while he has also become a dad.
“It has been, there’s been a lot of ups and downs. But it’s been good the last nine months, my favourite line the last couple of months has just been keeping the head down.
“I’ve had two kids in the time being as well. I’ve grown up, got engaged and everything. It’s been a busy four years.”
Camp life is “very tough” he admits, “but it’s also motivating, you know? It’s probably something that motivates me the most; this is my job – I’m out here keeping the wolf from the door and that kind of motivates you.
“You have facetime [with your family on Skype] and stuff too, it makes it a bit easier but you do miss the hugs and that. But when you’ve a good woman at home it makes it a lot easier.”