Saracens have loomed large on Keith Earls’s horizon since he first broke into Munster’s professional ranks more than a decade ago. In that time he has witnessed the shift in power across those years that now makes him recognise his team as underdogs ahead of the next instalment of their rivalry.
It is 11 years since a 20-year-old Earls sat with dad, Ger, at home in Limerick as Munster saw off Sarries in the 2008 semi-final at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena on their way to a second Heineken Cup title in three seasons.
Two years ago, Earls was on the wing as Munster huffed and puffed at Aviva Stadium but were unable to blow down the door of Saracens’ renowned Wolf Pack defence as the reigning champions marched towards a successful retention of their European crown.
The Ireland wing, who had a chance to join the Londoners between those two points, now has another chance to make his mark after the two sides were thrown together for third semi-final date following their quarter-final victories last weekend.
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Earls was the two-try hero and man of the match of the narrow victory over Edinburgh at Murrayfield last Saturday and though Munster first have some Guinness PRO14 business to attend to with Cardiff Blues visiting Cork this Friday night and a trip to Treviso to face Benetton a week later, thoughts of a Champions Cup semi-final against old foes back at the Ricoh Arena on April 20 and memories of past meetings are difficult to suppress.
Earls this week recalled his armchair view of the 2008 semi but quickly came back to the both the 2017 defeat and the tasks ahead.
“I was at home watching it with my old man,” he said of ’08. “I remember Quinny’s try and his celebration that sticks out in my mind but look, two completely different teams and we’ll enter as underdogs and you know we will have to learn from our mistakes from a couple of years ago but we know it’s going to be a massive challenge.
“I think they are the number one seeded team but you know we’ll give it a good belt anyway but we have to think about the next couple of weeks first before we think about Saracens.” Of the 26-10 defeat in Dublin two years ago he added: “Yeah, that’s obviously going to come up a lot in the next couple of weeks. Look Saracens are a top-quality side and back-to-back champions a couple of years ago. We’ll have a look at them over the next couple of weeks but it’s going to be another massive, massive challenge for us.”
Earls, 31, believes Munster cannot afford to let minds wander towards Europe while they have three games remaining to try and reel in PRO14 conference leaders Glasgow, overcome their three-point lead and book a home league semi-final.
“In fairness this crowd have got good at focusing on it game by game as well. Saracens is a couple of weeks away so we’re still fighting for a semi-final and quarter final of the one we’re in.” Earls returns to Musgrave Park on Friday, where he scored a hat-trick in the PRO14 victory over Edinburgh last November, fresh from his two special scores against the same opposition on the European stage last Saturday.
The second, a wonderful finish on 70 minutes, provided the killer blow while the opening salvo was all down to Earls’ quick-thinking as his quick tap from a scrum penalty in the right corner caught the home side napping as their forwards began to regroup.
Yeah, it’s interesting you see how passionate forwards are about scrums and usually when it goes up or goes down they’re kinda patting each other on the back or pushing and shoving so I knew I might get some bit of space, so thankfully I did.
The penalty had come as the back of the scrum as Edinburgh’s Henry Pyrgos slapped the ball out of Conor Murray’s hands, providing a further distraction to the Scots as they argued the merits of Pascal Gauzere’s decision.
“I knew I had an advantage,” Earls said, “he was completely offside and slaps the ball down so it’s kind of a free play as well and look, thankfully it worked out. Their forwards got distracted and you know in fairness to the ref he left the game play on and thankfully it stood.
“We’ve turned the page on Edinburgh now and we’re coming up against a Cardiff side who have a lot to fight for and a side who have beaten us in Cork, they’re level on points with Connacht and they’re looking for a quarter final and also we’re trying to put pressure on Glasgow as well. That’s the beauty of rugby you push on to another big game.”