Keith Earls has been here before. Keith Earls has been everywhere before. Crises? Old news. Long unbeaten runs? Surfed those. Transition periods? The guy is playing for his third national head coach and he’s on his fourth World Cup cycle.
So, yeah, done all that.
The Munster wing is 33, Ireland’s current struggles aren’t new to him. Go back four years and Joe Schmidt was facing the media after a loss to England in Twickenham and asking people to keep the faith. Earls played that day.
Schmidt embraced the concept of transition at that time. He was coming to terms with life without Paul O’Connell. He had 10 players on the injury list and he was blooding a crop of youngsters in the harsh surrounds of the test environment.
That loss in London left the visitors winless through three rounds of the Five/Six Nations for the first time since 1998 but things turned around with another cruise against Italy, a win against the Scots and then a first-ever victory on South African soil.
By November, they were in Chicago and, well, we know what happened there.
That was then, of course. Schmidt had already established himself as a world-class coach with Leinster and with Ireland. Andy Farrell is less than a year into his guise as a boss man but he too has been initiating change in personnel.
As Stuart Lancaster observed this week, the loss of Rob Kearney, Rory Best, and Devin Toner alone this last year has drained hundreds of caps and an unquantifiable reservoir of knowledge from a squad which will likely have used 41 players in 2020 by the end of business against Georgia tomorrow.
Ten of them will have been men making their debuts.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of new lads but having said that there’s a lot of talented lads as well and international rugby can’t wait for you,” says Earls whose start against England last week was his first for Ireland since the World Cup quarter-final loss to New Zealand. “It just makes you start fast and you have to just try and survive.
“We’ve had a mixed bag of results: a good win against Italy, that loss against France was again about small margins. It’s just down to ourselves. Once we clean up our own game and we start taking our opportunities, and we are creating opportunities, ... but it’s probably that last pass, or we’re a small bit too flat and it’s killing us at the moment.”
Earls’ line break close to the half-hour seven days ago was this in microcosm. The veteran galloped into open space after evading Owen Farrell but the cavalry was late in cresting the hill after Jonny May made the covering tackle and so the chance of a try and a means of eating into a 12-0 deficit was lost.
“That was an opportunity that we probably panicked in ourselves as well,” he admits.
There is no alarm in his voice or in his demeanour as he says this. Earls has long since learned how to compartmentalise this stuff. Rugby no longer pours over into the rest of his life and he has learned perspective in a purely sporting sense as well.
So he is not beaten down about this. The belief remains that these are small, fixable margins. That’s his take, and that of his peers, but the picture on Ireland can change depending on the angle from which it’s viewed.
There is an understandable weariness with hearing Ireland players and coaches state that they are just one or two per cent away from clicking. It’s a line that has echoed ever since they were shocked by England in Dublin at the start of the 2019 Six Nations. Patience wears thin.
Earls speaks enthusiastically of a coach who will take suggestions from senior players on board as he negotiates a path forward but he too comes back to the micro rather than the macro: passes that need to stick or players needing to stand deeper. Or flatter.
“Every coach has their own philosophy of playing and their own ways and coaches do think differently a lot. It’s just about buying in to his philosophy. There’s been an open forum here with Andy, that it’s not his team or his way, it’s up to us to take ownership as well.
“It’s only one or two passes that are letting us down and you can see a team like Wales are going through a tough transition as well.”
Some constants remain through these times and the reliance on a bedrock of experience is one of them. Ireland could count only 433 caps among their starters last time out and the trio of Earls, Peter O’Mahony, and Cian Healy accounted for well over half of them.
Healy said recently that he has never seen himself as a leader, regardless of his extended service, and Earls wears his seniority lightly when it comes to the DNA of a back three unit that has undergone as much change as any in the last year.
In fairness, he has a point in highlighting the shared load.
Jacob Stockdale has 31 caps already, Andrew Conway turns 30 next July, James Lowe is hardly a spring chicken despite his belated elevation to this arena and Hugo Keenan gives him the impression he has been in camp for years.
“So you might not think it but there is a lot of experience in that back three and in the back line in general with the centres we have as well,” he argues.
“Yeah, I’m not under too much pressure being the old fella.”