Natural finisher Keith Earls has unfinished business

‘If I never scored another try and we won every game I played in, I’d still be happy’

If he scores against France today, Keith Earls would become the first Irish player to score tries in five successive Tests since Joseph Quinn in the 1913-14 season. Earls's brace against Italy also took him to 22 in 56 Tests, above Shane Horgan and into fourth on the all-time list of try scorers in Test rugby for Ireland.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Of those in the top 10, only the two immediately above him, Tommy Bowe (30 in 68 Tests) and Denis Hickie (29 in 62), have better strike rates. Earls admits that scoring tries is a buzz, but Ireland's best finisher right now disguises it well.  "Just get the ball down and get on to the next job," he says. "Enjoy them afterwards. I was raging with myself in Italy for putting the ball down with one hand."

He also recalls celebrating his try against Italy in the 2011 World Cup with a swallow dive. Well, it was his birthday. "My father said: 'Never again. Just put the ball down'."

Winning is a different matter. He’ll celebrate that. “If I never scored another try for the rest of my life and we won every game I played in, I’d be happy.”

As he also acknowledges, the two against Italy were relative walk-ins: “The boys on the inside did the hard work. I have to be the boys’ eyes, tell them where the space is and concentrate on catching the ball.”

While a natural finisher, he had to practice finishing with his right hand after Rob Penney switched him from the left wing to the right.

The withdrawal of Sevens specialist Virimi Vakatawa, along with Noa Nakaitaci’s switch to the left wing to accommodate the return of Yoann Huget, is liable to strengthen France’s defence out wide.

“Huget is good in the air, strong in contact and Nakaitaci is the same,” Earls observes. “He’s a formidable player and a big lad as well; a fella we’ll have to keep nice and quiet. We’ll have our hands full. Definitely in the last year they’ve come on. They play for each other now.”

Earls, for one, has reason to be wary: he has played against France seven times. After four defeats and then two draws, he was finally on a winning side against them for the first time at the last World Cup.

Eight years on

The man has been around longer than we perhaps realise. It’s been over eight years since Earls made his try-scoring international debut a stone’s throw from home in Thomond Park against Canada. He’s 29 now, which is almost hard to believe.

So much has happened, and so much has changed, yet Earls maintains: “I still feel like a young fella. I still feel the same.”

He says that in Munster he talks a little more and assumes a greater role as team leader, but less so in the Irish set-up. “If you’re up here, fellas are fairly clued on, whereas in Munster young players would be coming through.”

Doug Howlett, Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara were mentoring figures for Earls. In those early years, he was bedevilled by self-doubt. As well as off-field advice, O'Gara helped to improve his self-belief, especially when Earls broke into the Irish squad.

“Rog was always looking out for me in training and in games. He’d say to me, ‘I’m going to hit you with a miss-one here. Just do your thing.’ He would always give me confidence.”

At first he was particularly in awe of O’Driscoll. “If Drico said anything positive to me, I’d say to myself, I’m only a little fella from Moyross here, is he really saying that to me? He was the best centre in the world. I remember if I made a line break against him in training or something, he’d look over at me and smile, or say something small into my ear, which was amazing.”

A contemporary was Luke Fitzgerald, who is 19 days older than Earls. They were 17 when Earls first came across him at an Irish Schools training session in Clongowes.

“He was a scrawny little thing back then as well, but he had unbelievable bite. He was a tough bit of stuff. He was special. We went on to play for the Irish schools together against England in Cork Con, and it was the first time I saw a player sidestep another player and leave him on his arse.”

Neck injury

Earls was genuinely upset for his mate when Fitzgerald was forced to retire with a neck injury last June. “It was devastating. We went the whole way up with each other. Both our fathers and mothers get on well with each other. One of the first players my father would ask for was Lukey.

“He’s down in Limerick in the next couple of weeks, so he said he’d call over to the house and we’ll have a proper chat.”

As Earls is also quick to point out, Anthony Foley’s death has put rugby in its place. “It’s not to say that I don’t care about rugby any more, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. I’m still going to give it 100 per cent, but there’s a lot worse out there.” Like Foley, Earls is a product of St Munchin’s as well as Munster. “He genuinely would have done anything for us to succeed.”

Fitzgerald’s retirement also reminded him how fragile a rugby career is. Earls too has had his share of woes. He suffered a ruptured AC joint in Ireland’s defeat to Italy in Rome in March 2013 (when Fitzgerald also went off in the first-half with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament), and didn’t play again for Ireland until the World Cup warm-up away to Wales in August 2015.

Earls was also sidelined for five months after an operation on his patella tendon in 2014. All of it has helped him become more knowledgeable about his own body. However, at the start of this season, his back was in regular spasm, which affected his breathing. He even felt the pain when picking up either of his two daughters, Ella May and Laurie.

“I was trying to impress Rassie [Erasmus] because he was the new man in, and couldn’t finish a game, but thankfully the physios in Munster sorted it out. I mostly stay away from weights, get everything opened up. I do pilates once a week, and strength training is important, but most of it is about stretching and opening up the chest.”

Not body builders

Earls essentially adheres to his own fitness programme. “That’s how Paulie got so long out of his career. He just decided, lads, this is what I need to do if you want me to play on Saturday. And, thankfully, Rassie is like that too. He says we’re not body builders, we’re rugby players.”

Earls’s speed has remained unaffected: “I’m still clocking good times. We have a ‘max velocity’.” Last week he clocked 9.5m per second, which is over 34kmh or 21mph. “I wouldn’t be as fast as Zeebs. He clocked a 10.2.”

He reckons that maybe over the first 10 metres he would be faster than Zebo, “but he’d have me on the longer distances. He has phenomenal speed, and some of the ways he gets the ball down is incredible. He’s unbelievably naturally talented. In fairness, he has set me up for a lot too.”

An example of their telepathic understanding was the way Earls latched onto Zebo's grubber to give Iain Henderson a try-scoring pass against Australia.

“It’s weird. He’d be inside me and just give me a look, and I know he’s going to come up with something. I just have to be ready, whether it’s a long pass or a kick through. We don’t say much to each other. We just have a look.”

While he’ll never have Zebo’s temperament, Earls is not the worrier he used to be. Marriage to long-time sweetheart Edel and fatherhood to his daughters have helped keep things in perspective.

“This is a massive game. It is important, but it’s not the most important thing. The most important thing to me is getting home to my wife and kids, rather than worrying about the game anymore, or my opponents. I give them all the respect in the world. But now I say to myself, if this 80 minutes of rugby is all I have to worry about, then I have no worries.

“It’s a game of rugby, and I try and live in the moment.”

Eye on medals

That said, Keith Earls is hungrier than ever, having missed out on those 2014 and 2015 Six Nations titles. “People think I have an awful lot of medals, but I don’t. I was 24th man for the Grand Slam. I was on the bench for the [2008] Heineken Cup final.

“I told my father, you can throw those medals in the bin. He still has them, but they’re worthless to me because I’ve only got two medals, Magners League and Celtic League. They’re the only two medals I appreciate because I was involved in them. The goal would be, by the time I’m finished, to hopefully have a Six Nations and down in Munster have a European Cup medal.”

“I’m proud of my two League medals, but I’ve a burning desire to get more medals.”

So. The finisher ain’t finished yet.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times