Keith Earls relishing Munster’s return to the top table
Aviva outing against Saracens presents ideal opportunity to end semi-final hoodoo
Keith Earls in action against Toulouse in the quarter-final. “We won’t be scared of pressure this week. I don’t think young lads feel pressure any more in this squad, which is weird.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Keith Earls permits a rueful smile to flit across his features as he considers the question. It takes him back to the 2008 Heineken Cup final and spans the intervening years, a tale that begins at the summit of European rugby, but one that hasn’t been reclaimed in the interim.
On four occasions since the second of their two European triumphs in 2008, Munster have reached the semi-finals only to be thwarted each time.
It’s a statistic they’ll hope to change when embracing a fifth match at the penultimate stage of the tournament against Saracens at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday (3.15).
The 29-year-old Munster and Ireland wing was an unused replacement when Munster beat Toulouse in the Millennium Stadium, parachuted into the match-day squad.
“This will be the fifth semi-final. It was a weird one, starting out and going onto the bench straight away for my first European game; obviously I didn’t get a run in the final.”
He spoke about reaching the cusp of another outright success or at least a final only to come up short, attributing some of those shortcomings to a failure to handle the pressure of favouritism. He added that the years in which the passage to that late stage of the competition was relatively untroubled, it left the team a little undercooked.
Earls contrasted that sharply with experiences gleaned from the current campaign.
“We’ve had plenty of games this year where we have won with the last kick of the game, and won games we shouldn’t have won. It’s been three or four years now and from where we were last year, it was a tough place trying to qualify for this tournament not to mind being in a semi-final this week.
“You always had your people who would support you but it’s gone through the roof again, flags everywhere, red everywhere and everyone’s looking for signed jerseys. It’s brilliant for Munster and the lads who played in the past to see this crop of lads keep things going.”
He says the team aren’t prisoners of their past, they don’t carry the baggage of what others did before them good or bad and instead are focusing as a group on what they want to, and believe they can, achieve – starting on Saturday.
He doesn’t feel that he has to play the role of elder statesman on or off the pitch although occasionally forced to remind them of their responsibilities.
“The lads who have come in have brought me back down to my [real rather than playing] age and I’m a lot more relaxed.
“I’m enjoying it but still the younger lads need a kick up the arse every now and then but they still have to drive standards; they are a different breed.”
He points out that they are more mellow than their predecessors. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have a hard edge but on the basis that rugby has changed it is channelled in a productive manner.
“We won’t be scared of pressure this week. I don’t think young lads feel pressure any more in this squad, which is weird.”
Munster are in a good place but so too are their opponents Saracens, the defending Champions Cup and Aviva Premiership title holders.
“They didn’t do the double last year by luck, they’ve been working hard the last six or seven years as a squad. It’s a place we want to get back to now.”