Record-breaker Keith Earls still in full flight three World Cups on
Aware this could be his last World Cup, the Irish winger is out to enjoy his time in Japan
Keith Earls in Shizuoka this week. ‘Potentially, this could be my last World Cup,’ says the Munster winger. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
In his own typically unobtrusive way Keith Earls has become one of his country’s greatest players, and he will look to kick-start his third World Cup against Japan in Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa on Saturday as Ireland’s all-time record World Cup try scorer.
He overtook Brian O’Driscoll’s tally with his eighth against Italy four years ago. Not that he places any store by it.
“No, it’s about getting a win for the boys, playing well. If selected, it’s about getting out and doing my best for the team and if a try comes then great but I don’t really look into the individual stuff. It’s nice to be up there but the main thing is the team winning.”
You believe him too. Humble is as humble does.
He probably doesn’t even know that if he scores against the hosts Earls will also overtake Tommy Bowe as Ireland’s second highest try scorer in history. The pair are currently on 30, with you know who on 46.
Having been ever present in the last two World Cups, he missed last Saturday’s opening game against Scotland, seemingly with a little tendonitis before also taking a bang on his quad in the first half of the final warm-up game against Wales. To have played, he says, would have been a massive risk.
“It was something that was bothering me for a week or two leading up into that [Wales] game. I probably came back a small bit too early, obviously to try and put my hand up for selection and get on the plane. I kind of had to push it a bit.”
In his absence no one played more impressively than Andrew Conway. Not that this remotely prompted Earls to ponder whether he should have risked making himself available.
“No, no, not at all. It doesn’t surprise me the way he played. I am around him quite a bit, he is unbelievably professional. I see how he prepares for games, I see how he looks after himself. It didn’t bother me at all because I know how hard he works. I suppose it’s a nice little battle now for the back-three. Whatever happens, we will just keep pushing each other.
“I think it’s a good thing for all of us and a good thing for the coaches that no one owns the jersey any more. It’s about giving the coaches a headache and keeping each other on the top of our games.”
Nor is there a hierarchy within the squad in Earls’s view.
“No, no I don’t think so with us. It’s probably all external stuff. I think whenever the five or six of us back-three [players], anyone can play on any given week. In fairness, we are quite close as well. We are not going behind each other’s back. We prepare each other as well as possible for the game. It’s all about the squad getting out and winning at the weekend.”
Competing in his third World Cup, Earls admits he’s “a small bit more relaxed” as a result and, turning 32 next month, he concurs with Cian Healy that, with age, he appreciates it more.
“Yeah, definitely. Realistically, potentially, this could be my last World Cup as well, unless they play me when I am 36. You just learn to enjoy these things. As a young lad, at my last two World Cups, I was quite nervous. You do learn to appreciate it more when you get older. It’s a pity you don’t think like that when you’re younger but that’s the joy of experience. It’s been very enjoyable and embracing the culture a bit as well has been great.”
That said, Earls has been cautious about his diet.
“On days off it’s hard trying to find a bit of food, you don’t know what you’re going to be eating and stuff like that. Weirdly enough we’re in Japan and we haven’t eaten too much sushi.
“I suppose going into a game, two days beforehand, you don’t want to be eating raw food, sushi. I suppose there’s a lot of downtime here. There’s people playing cards a bit more, and having the craic in the team room a bit more, we’re out of the way a bit more which is great, we’re just kind of in the sticks on our own which is brilliant.”
His caution is borne out of experience, and one sniff of sea urchin which Healy was eating one evening was a sufficient deterrent.
“I tried it in 2017. Myself, Dev [Toner] and Cian went off to a restaurant in 2017 and we didn’t wake up too well.”
He’s always been a world-class finisher, and at 31 it would seem that age is not slowing down the Moyross Express either.
“He hit his highest speed score today in training as he was going to score a try in the corner which has delighted us all,” Andy Farrell said during Ireland’s warm-up programme.
Encouragingly too, the top of the ground conditions at this World Cup should suit ‘Oul Man Earlsy, as he was affectionately referred to due to his performances on the tour here in 2017, when scoring two tries in the first Test in the same Shizuoka Stadium.
But he was suitably impressed by Japan in their win over Russia on opening night.
“Jesus they look unbelievably quick, unbelievably fit. Obviously playing against them in 2017 we know what to expect. They play a high-tempo game and try to keep the ball on the park as much as they can and they’re unbelievably dangerous as well so if we’re not screwed on they’ll do a bit of damage.”
Earls and co encountered last Friday’s hat-trick hero Kotaro Matsushima, who also scored in that first Test, and others two years ago.
“We’d know them quite a bit but they’re well coached and I’m sure they’ll come up with a couple of trick plays. They’re quite skillful and have a great kicking game. You saw what they did in the last World Cup. They pushed England for a while in November so we’ll definitely need our heads switched on against them.”