Irish coach: Earls now has tools to tackle Tuilagi

Ireland coach Mark Tainton is confident Keith Earls will cope much better with the threat of England outside centre Manu Tuilagi than he did when he came up against him in the World Cup warm-up match last August.

That day the explosive Tuilagi scored England’s first try and punched hole after hole in an Irish defensive line, where Earls was consistently one of the weakest links.

“We all saw what happened in that match pre-World Cup, and Keith has worked very hard on his defence lines with people coming in from different angles since then,” said Tainton.

“He more than proved in Paris that he was capable of dealing with [Aurélien] Rougerie in the wider channels. He’s also a very big and powerful man, but he stopped him at source. He’s worked very hard and now he’s in a good place and very happy with himself at the moment and his defensive situation, so hopefully he produces the same thing at the weekend against Tuilagi.”

Earls certainly looks like he’s undergone something of a mini-transformation since that hugely disappointing performance in August.

Not only has he been one of Ireland’s most consistent players, he also comes across as a more confident and mentally strong individual. Before the England match in the summer he admitted he was frustrated about being shunted from the wing into the centre position and didn’t seem psychologically prepared for the challenge of filling Brian O’Driscoll’s boots.

In the past he’s also been excessively introspective and self-critical about his performances for Ireland but when you talk to him now he no longer seems to have those sort of hang-ups.

“I think he’s more relaxed within himself and he’s matured as a player and as a person,” explained Tainton. “He feels confident in how he’s playing, and that relaxes him quite a lot which brings a lot to the team.”

The Irish midfield was the team’s weakest link in the first match of the Six Nations against Wales, but since Earls has returned to the team that is no longer the case. And not only are we looking well served in the outside centre position, Jonny Sexton also definitively proved last weekend against Scotland that he is a viable option at inside centre when Ronan O’Gara takes over the out-half duties. Gordon D’Arcy is playing well at the moment, but expect that O’Gara-Sexton axis to feature again in the second half against England tomorrow.

“Jonny is a good footballer and can play in a number of positions in the back line,” says Tainton. “If it comes to a stage where we think Jonny will move to centre, his tackling is very solid, he’s a tremendous distributor and has a good kicking game.

“That always gives you an extra weapon, but we’re very happy too with the way that Gordon is playing. He’s had a great Six Nations, probably one of his best for a while.”

The Irish attack in general has been extremely impressive so far in the competition. A tally of 13 tries is four more than anyone else has managed, and there has been far better variation and execution than there was in the World Cup.

“We do believe it has improved,” agreed Tainton. “But there’s room for further improvement as well. We’re still working on our attack this week — different aspects where we feel we might break them [England] down.”

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