IT has been a fresh start for Keith Earls in more ways than one, these past few months since the World Cup.
Coming home from Japan in the wake of Ireland’s demoralising quarter-final defeat to the All Blacks, the Munster wing was a little broken, not least physically. During the tournament, Earls had spoken of his new approach to professional setbacks. What’s the worst that could happen if Ireland were beaten? He got to go home to his wife and children.
And so it panned out for the 32-year-old, whose deflation at his World Cup disappointment, and the wear and tear of a grueling few months in Ireland camp, was eased by family and friends.
“It was just full-on, full-on rugby,” Earls said this week as Ireland trained in Cork ahead of next weekend’s Guinness Six Nations clash with England in Twickenham. “Then, unfortunately we were knocked out and I got away and spent a bit of time with the kids in Center Parcs with Peter O’Mahony and his kids, and it was just a normal life getting away from rugby.
“But it’s amazing, a week later then you’re like, ‘Jeez, I just want to get back on the field now’.
“We had time off at Christmas and it was probably my first time in my career I’d say, and I found myself drinking and eating over the Christmas. It’s amazing, when you’re playing you’re like, ‘Jeez, I wish I could be out with the family or out with the lads having drinks’. And I was doing that this year and I was like: ‘I definitely prefer playing.’ I think the couple of days are great but then after a week you want to get back into it.”
Returning to rugby was eased by the new faces he encountered on his returns to both Munster and Ireland. Be it new Munster senior coach Stephen Larkham or incoming attack coach Mike Catt alongside Andy Farrell in the revamped Test camp, the fresh outlook has been welcomed and for Earls, the fire in the belly is as strong as it ever was.
“100%. My body is feeling great now, back and knees. I know my knees were at me but with the back in the last couple of years I’ve had a great last two months. I’ve been feeling really refreshed and I’m back doing a bit of weights and stuff as well, so it’s great.”
Earls has had to bide his time for his return to Test rugby. A knee injury that caused him to miss Munster’s final Champions Cup pool game last month meant he was again playing catch-up with Ireland squad rivals, including provincial team-mate Andrew Conway, who made his first Six Nations start in the win over Scotland and followed up with a try-scoring performance against Wales that Earls witnessed at first hand having come off the bench early in the second half to replace Robbie Henshaw at outside centre.
Conway’s tour de force against the Welsh came as no surprise to Earls, if only as a reminder of the competition he faces for an Ireland starting jersey.
“There’s no begrudging against Andrew or anyone else, we’re all in the same team but in the back of my mind I’m going to be backing myself now that I’m quite fit as well.
“He’s playing the best rugby I’ve seen him play. I thought at the weekend it was the best game I’ve ever seen him play. All round, anything he touched, something was happening, which is great to see but I’d like to see him looking over his back as well, as I was for the last couple of years!”
For Earls the new regime and more relaxed approach has come at the right time, just as he feels it has benefitted life at Munster. Before Christmas, the wing spoke about a happier atmosphere in the province compared with the outset of his career when the squad’s senior statesmen set a more serious tone. Earls sees parallels with a rebooted Ireland.
“I think there were times (at Munster) when we were scared to laugh.
If you were laughing you weren’t switched on or you weren’t concentrating or you weren’t being professional. But I think in the last week before we did the Captain’s Run (last Saturday, pre-Wales) we didn’t meet again until we were getting on the bus going to the game.
“Usually you’d have a couple of meetings beforehand and you might have a meeting at 10 in the morning and the anxiety starts coming in from there whereas it’s completely chilled.
“We are trying to enjoy ourselves but once you walk out in the four lines you have to be switched on. It’s being able to switch on for the hour or so rather than wasting energy all morning or two days or a day out, wasting energy on thinking about plays or stuff like that. Yeah, it’s definitely a lot, more relaxed in Munster and Ireland as well.”
The move to a purpose-built IRFU High Performance Centre in Abbotstown has certainly helped Farrell bring about change, a comfort predecessor Joe Schmidt did not enjoy in the confines of Ireland’s previous resort-based training facilities and Earls sees an unbuttoning in the approach to match preparation.
“It’s been a lot more chilled. We’re barely in the classroom as well. We see our classroom as being on the field. Faz brings down a TV to the side of the field at the HPC and we’ll look at a play and then we’ll go out and rep it. It’s just that coaches are different.
“Thinking about Twickenham, it’s an unbelievable place to go, but I’m probably only thinking about it 10 minutes a day rather than 24/7.
“I think Andy backs our qualities as well to be able to deliver what he shows us. Look, it’s a new philosophy and it’s completely different from the way we’ve been playing and it’s great. We’re only two games into it and we’re two from two.”
For Earls, that is a great place to be. His stint at number 13 was one of the real positives in the bonus-point win over Wales and he welcomed the return of that winning feeling given the difficult season Munster have been experiencing with a Champions Cup exit after the pool stage.
“With Munster, being out of Europe is tough, getting beat by Racing away then I didn’t play against Ospreys. So yeah, it was my first run out in a while and it was good to get one back over Wales and in the manner we did as well.
“We played some exciting rugby but what’s brilliant is there’s plenty more to come.”