Earls, 26, yesterday followed Munster and Ireland team-mate Paul O’Connell in signing a new two-year central contract that will see him remain with his home province until June 2016.
Irish skipper O’Connell’s decision to put pen to paper on another IRFU deal was made public on Monday, while Leinster back-row Sean O’Brien committed his immediate future to Irish rugby last week with a similar deal.
Like O’Brien, Earls’ good news was tempered by an injury, the Munster wing hobbling off at Thomond Park on Sunday against Edinburgh having received a bang on his left knee after just 24 minutes.
Earls will see a specialist today to identify the full prognosis of the ligament damage revealed by a scan he underwent on Monday. Having not added to his 39 Ireland caps since undergoing shoulder surgery following an injury in the final game of last year’s Six Nations against Italy in Rome, sitting out this year’s championship would represent a bitter blow, particularly having missed the November Tests because of a knee condition.
Both injuries have interrupted some flying form for Earls, who was Ireland’s top try scorer at the last World Cup and IRFU chief executive Phillip Browne said: “Keith is a proven finisher and has shown guile and determination throughout his rugby career for both Munster and Ireland. We wish him a speedy recovery from his recent injury and look forward to seeing Keith play for Munster and Ireland over the next two years.”
Yesterday, with Munster chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald having told The Irish Examiner that Earls’s contract situation would “get sorted out in the very immediate short-term,” the 2009 Lions tourist reaffirmed his belief that Munster were heading in the right direction.
“I am delighted to sign a new IRFU contract and to continue representing my province,” Earls said. “This Munster team has shown it has what it takes to compete with the best in Europe and I look forward to playing my role in bringing further success to both Munster and Ireland.”
Earls’ decision to stay at Munster despite interest from overseas clubs was a further boost for Munster head coach Rob Penney, who has seen linchpins Conor Murray, Donnacha Ryan, Donncha O’Callaghan and Tommy O’Donnell all sign new contracts in the last three months, in addition to O’Connell. There are still many contractual issues to resolve within the province as the internationals in the squad turn their focus toward the Six Nations and the rest of the Munster squad enjoy a two-week break.
Senior backs Johne Murphy, James Downey, Denis Hurley and Duncan Williams are all out of contract this summer, with forwards Billy Holland, Ian Nagle, Niall Ronan and CJ Stander are in a similar position. Ryan, meanwhile, faces another few weeks on the sidelines, having undergone exploratory surgery on his knee last week.
“The procedure re-confirmed no additional injury or damage and he will continue with his rehabilitation for the next few weeks as he waits for the knee to settle,” a Munster statement read, thereby putting his prospects of seeing any Six Nations action into doubt.
Ryan has played just 53 minutes of rugby since injuring his knee initially against Gloucester in mid-October and, like Earls, missed out on the November Tests.
Both will be hoping to return before the end of the Six Nations but Munster are hopeful they will be in contention for their Thomond Park showdown with four-time Heineken Cup champions Toulouse, for whom veteran full-back Clement Poitrenaud is hoping his club’s first trip to Limerick will not be one to haunt the French aristocrats.
Poitrenaud, 31, a three-time winner with Toulouse in 2003, ’05 and ’10, said of the quarter-final date: “Playing there against such an opponent and in such an atmosphere... that is legendary in a career. I hope this does not become a nightmare. We know we are not favourites but this was already the case before the start of the competition. With our resources, we will try our best to hang in there.”