RONAN O'GARA: Keith Earls is ready if Lions come calling

Kieth Earls playing against the USA. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

There were a few mobile phones on full charge over in New Jersey last weekend, but to my mind the one who is closer than them all to Lions form is Keith Earls, writes Ronan O’Gara

One week shy of a year ago, Racing 92 won an emotionally draining Top 14 final in the Camp Nou. It feels like the never-ending season is coming to a close and yet the three Lions tests in New Zealand are still ahead of us. The rugby season is so long now you feel like you’re lapping yourself at the end of it.

It was an energising stint with the Irish squad in America but at the end of a long, long season, I found myself with a snotty nose on the flight home with the injured Joey Carbery and Enda McNulty. Too many airplanes and airports.

Racing begin pre-season on June 29, so a holiday in the south of France from today is the sort of pick-me-up we all need. The nature of the beast however meant Dan Carter and I spent Wednesday wondering is the Lions’ glass half-full or half empty.

Both of us agreed from a tourists’ point of view that Stuart Hogg’s unfortunate injury has muddied the waters for the first test. The Maori game is only a week before the first game against the All Blacks but it will still firm up a number of issues.

Who is going to play full-back tomorrow week? Has Hogg’s departure opened the door for Leigh Halfpenny? If the Welshman is on the field, I presume he kicks. So how does that destabilise Owen Farrell (if he recovers from injury)? Between the Jonathan Davies HIA and the fact that neither Robbie Henshaw or anyone else has put a lock on the 12 jersey, how tempted is Warren Gatland to go back to Johnny Sexton at 10 with Farrell in the centre? It doesn’t work for me, we’ve said that already. For the last quarter of a game it has merits but not before.

Robbie Henshaw
Robbie Henshaw

Henshaw was energetic against the Highlanders on Tuesday, but I don’t think he’s made the spot his own. Gatland could go with any number of permutations — Sexton 10, Farrell 12, Davies 13 or Farrell 10, Henshaw 12, Joseph 13, or Davies at 13. But the fact that there are so many permutations indicates there is no standout midfield. Jared Payne could still be at 13 but he would have needed to do more to get the nod.

Four of the backs look sorted — George North is playing, Murray is playing, Farrell too. I think Liam Williams will start against New Zealand though Jonathan Joseph is probably the form attacker on tour at the moment.

Tuesday’s defeat was an awful game to lose against a Highlanders outfit stripped of many of its top talents. A lead of 22-13 after half-time is not one the Lions should be handing back. How do you put building blocks in place for the tests with these error-fests? The notion of flicking a switch for the first test in Auckland is fanciful at best. You have to show a bit of form.

There were a few mobile phones on full charge over in New Jersey last weekend, but to my mind the one who is closer than them all to Lions form is Keith Earls. Anyone looking to learn their trade by watching a top top player do his stuff should watch Earls in the first half against the USA last Saturday. Head and shoulders above everyone on the pitch, even allowing for the opposition.

Earls was exceptional, I believe he carried for almost 180 metres in the first half. I could see he has got to that stage of his life and career where he is happy. Two kids, very happy personally, no baggage mentally and you can see he is just driving on.

I had a good chat with Joey Carbery on the flight home. What position he will end up playing is an interesting proposition. You can see why he’s fast, he has a pair of powerful legs on him, and he’s quite rangy. At this moment Paddy Jackson — who takes over for the Japan leg of the tour — is tidier, but there’s a lot of potential there with Carbery. It realistically took Paddy until the South African tour last summer to truly come into his own so Joey’s got plenty of time.

O’Gara with Joey Carbery
O’Gara with Joey Carbery

What I loved in the Irish set-up is the sense of support for people around the place. I hit it off really well with Simon Easterby, Greg Feek and Richie Murphy because they work their asses off too. Nobody around Joe is there for the ride. It would have been nice in some ways to carry onto Japan and see what shape rugby is in two years out from the World Cup. But the break is welcome. Otherwise, you come back stale.

Having Donnchadh Ryan in Paris for pre-season is something I am looking forward to. He’s a tone-setter and every ambitious club needs those players.

I don’t accept either that his Irish international career should be at an end. Certainly not if you want strength in depth.

I agree that 90% of the international squad should be playing at home but there will always be exceptional cases.

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