Keith Earls took his turn in front of the media and made two declarations — one a whole lot more difficult than the other, but both of huge benefit to the Ireland cause ahead of this Saturday’s Murrayfield showdown with Scotland.
The 31-year-old wing first announced he would be fit to face to the Scots, having lasted just 40 minutes of Ireland’s Guinness Six Nations opening-day defeat at home to England due to a hip-pointer injury. The second and possibly more painful point he had to make was that he was taking the blame for England’s opening try that set the tone for a miserable afternoon in Dublin just 90 seconds into the contest.
After a couple of days of introspection for Irish rugby following the loss of head coach Joe Schmidt’s unbeaten home record in his six-season Six Nations career, Earls’s mea culpa marked a refreshing line in the sand, an act of maturity and a willingness for a player with the wealth of Test match experience that 73 caps provide to show you can never stop learning.
It was the sort of admission that underlines why Earls seems certain to be given the chance to atone in Edinburgh this weekend, especially now he has come through the first of two heavy training sessions.
“Yeah, I trained today,” the Munster star said. “It’s just a hip pointer, I took some bangs on it at the weekend and it just seized up, got really sore. I’ve been icing it ever since and I trained fully today.”
Earls, the senior figure in the Ireland back three alongside Robbie Henshaw and Jacob Stockdale, had been on the receiving end of English attention in the early stages of the contest, with a late hit by Tom Curry earning the Sale flanker a yellow card, while an aerial take-out by lock Maro Itoje on 17 minutes deserved a similar sanction, but went unpunished.
Earls gave Itoje the benefit of the doubt, saying it was “just a big collision” but that the same player had done the damage to his hip earlier in the game.
“It was actually the first kick-off, I think it was Itoje twice, the first kick-off and then the one in the air.
“It was frustrating. Everything kind of shut down around my hip and it was sore to run because it swelled out. They usually loosen out, but it didn’t. I suppose it was the first time I stayed on injured and tried to run it off because I’m usually quite good at knowing my body and when to come off, so from that aspect I probably should have come off earlier.”
Either way, Earls had already committed his error, the faulty read that saw him shoot out of the Irish defensive line that created the space for Owen Farrell’s pass to find Elliot Daly, whose pass to the left wing put Johnny May in for the opening try.
“It was obviously 100% my fault. I got my numbers wrong on the edge. I didn’t see Daly out there, I thought it was May.
“I was going to go for the intercept, but obviously Farrell’s pass is one of the best in the game and it beat me.
“I should definitely have just tucked if I had taken a look up. I should have tucked in with Conor (Murray). I think Billy (Vunipola) had offloaded it so we got caught off the mark and that’s why I tried to solve a problem on my own, but I got it completely wrong. Look, I’m big enough and old enough to know that and accept that.
“I went off on my own rather than just taking a feel for the game but if I got the intercept it could have been a different story, you know, but I made a mistake.
“A lot of the time we make good decisions and we can shut down a team but I didn’t make a good decision at the weekend and it can go completely against you.”
You would think that contributed to an uncomfortable review in the presence of Schmidt, but Earls added: “No, he didn’t have a cut off us or anything. A lot of us are experienced enough to know now that we didn’t start well and we weren’t ourselves for the first time in a long while. Why? I don’t know, but we were second to everything at the weekend.
“I suppose the good thing about it is we can fix a lot of the things ourselves. Everyone thinks we were poor, but some of our decision-making by individuals probably let ourselves down, but we actually didn’t play that badly.
“We’re not a bad team overnight all of a sudden. We know there is another massive challenge ahead with Scotland and with the firepower they have, we have to be 100%. We can’t, I suppose, be off the mark like we were at the weekend.
“It’s never good to get a wake-up call but I suppose it’s about how you learn from the wake-up call and not taking the negatives from whatever way we played. We were just off the mark like we have been in the last couple of years in the first game and it’s something we have to fix lively.”