By Brendan O’Brien
Keith Earls, named by his peers last night as Zurich’s Irish player of the year, is aiming to cap a memorable season by accounting for Leinster’s European champions and claiming a first trophy for Munster since 2011.
Earls’ form has been sensational for some time, with club and country, and he earned the vote last night ahead of clubmate Conor Murray and the Leinster pair of Jonathan Sexton and Tadhg Furlong.
“The team is the ultimate, but the year that’s in it, with the success in Ireland this year, it’s great to be recognised by your fellow players,” said Earls at the annual Rugby Players Ireland ceremony in Dublin last night.
In my eyes, Conor, Johnny, and Tadhg are probably the three best players, genuinely, in the world in their position. It’s brilliant, but we have a big weekend against Leinster this weekend. That’s the one we want.
Many has been the Leinster and Munster player to have looked the other way whenever their rival happened to be contesting European finals, but Earls soaked up every minute of Leinster’s Champions Cup final defeat of Racing 92 in Bilbao.
He was never going to turn his back on his good friend Donnacha Ryan and, while he had plenty of friends in the Leinster ranks as well, he was honest enough to admit that he felt “unbelievably jealous” as he took it all in from home in Limerick.
“You don’t need extra motivation for Munster and Leinster, but we’re the first ones to get a crack at the European champions, so we’re really going to test ourselves and, hopefully, we can turn them over.”
He added: “We’re constantly hungry for silverware and we came up short in Europe again this year, but it has been too long for our expectations and our supporters’ expectations and the players we have. There’s definitely a massive hunger to close in that gap.”
Earls claimed a first international medal with Ireland’s recent Grand Slam success and, though it is seven years since he won something with Munster, the omens are, at least, good in that regard.
Munster claimed the Magners League title in 2011 on the back of a grand final win against a Leinster side one week down the line from winning their second Heineken Cup, though that was under a head coach, Tony McGahan, who had been in situ three years by then.
Johann van Graan, by way of contrast, is hardly in the door.
“We always feel we’re capable of winning a trophy,” said Earls. “Johann came in in November and it has been another season of disruptions. Obviously, there’s nothing you can do about Axel’s passing but, with Rassie and Jacques leaving this year, it was a disruption. We looked after it ourselves as players and we haven’t seen much of Johann yet. We will really see him in pre-season and you’ll see van Graan’s team next year, but he’s been feeding us in dribs and drabs on top of Jerry (Flannery) and Felix (Jones’) stuff.
“Hopefully, he will get us over the line for two more games.”
Meanwhile, Leinster have announced the signing of 19 professional contracts starting from next season, but the futures of both Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne remain cloudy after both were absent from the list.
The two players have been central to talks held between the IRFU and Leinster, with the union hoping to relocate one or other to Ulster next season.
Both signed contracts with Leinster as recently as February of last year.
However, Leinster opt against revealing the length of individual contracts and there were no timeframes again with yesterday’s disclosure.
Jordan Larmour, already with a Six Nations Grand Slam and Champions Cup to his name, was one of four academy players to be handed a first senior deal. The prop Vakh Abdaladze and the flankers Josh Murphy and Caelan Doris will join him there next term.
Among the other 15 are Garry Ringrose, Rhys Ruddock, James Tracy, Josh van der Flier, Andrew Porter, Fergus McFadden, Sean Cronin, Dave Kearney, Ross Molony and Nick McCarthy.
Rob Kearney and Tadhg Furlong were already secured for another period on central IRFU contracts earlier this season. James Ryan, Dan Leavy, Jack Conan and Luke McGrath were all part of a group of 13 contracted anew last summer. That included Devin Toner, on a union deal, and the now-retired Jamie Heaslip.
Zurich Irish Rugby Player’s Player of the Year: Keith Earls (Munster);
Nevin Spence Young Player of the Year: Jacob Stockdale (Ulster);
BNY Mellon Women’s XVs Player of the Year: Claire Molloy;
Women’s 7s Player of the Year: Lucy Mulhall;
Volkswagen Try of the Year: CJ Stander (England v Ireland);
Vodafone Medal for Excellence: Duncan Casey (Grenoble);
BNY Mellon Rugby Players Ireland Hall of Fame: Brian O’Driscoll;
Mason Alexander Supporters’ Player of the Year Award: Bundee Aki (Connacht);
Druid’s Glen Hotel & Golf Resort Moment of the Year: ‘The Grand Slam’;
Zurich Contribution to Irish Society: Jack McGrath.
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.