The sense of dread around a hushed Thomond Park had been palpable as Keith Earls lay prone on the turf, surrounded by attentive medics.
The Munster centre had fallen head-long into Leinster scrum-half Eoin Reddan’s leg, felt a crack in his neck, thought immediately of his family watching in the stands and at home and sensibly decided not to move an inch further.
There followed many nervous minutes as the on-pitch treatment continued but it was Earls himself who changed the mood as he began to leave the field aboard a motorised stretcher trolley, his defiant raised fist prompting a huge and relieved cheer as a near sell-out crowd sensed that all would be well.
If there had been a sense of deja vu from the sight of Earls leaving another game prematurely, it was misplaced for just 12 days later, the in-form Ireland back is preparing for the biggest game of Munster’s season, a do-or-die Champions Cup pool clash with Top14 champions Stade Francais in Paris tomorrow evening.
What is more, this weekend’s fixture represents the first anniversary of Earls’ return to full fitness from knee surgery prompted by a patellar tendon injury suffered in the pre-season of 2014. Such was the form he exhibited in the second half of last season, it made what had initially seemed an unlikely run to Ireland’s World Cup squad for the previously injury-prone Limerick flyer entirely realistic.
The electric form continued into last summer’s Ireland camp and compelled head coach Joe Schmidt not just to name him in his 30-man squad but also make Earls the only back he selected in every one of Ireland’s five games at the tournament.
All of which leaves the 28-year-old finally feeling at ease with a body that not so long ago left him perpetually on tenterhooks, fearful of the next injury to strike.
“I came back last year in January and I am going nearly a full year, which is great,” Earls said. “I suppose I have gotten to know my body. With the knee, it kept breaking down. I have gotten to know my body now. If I have an issue now, I will say it to the coaches, ‘look, I need to sort this out, I don’t want to be training half-injured.’
“Thankfully, I haven’t even had to do that, so I have complete faith in my body now which is great. Putting games back to back is great.” His contact with Reddan’s leg proved only a temporary interruption of that welcome run of appearances in red.
“It wasn’t too serious, thankfully,” Earls said. “Whatever way I landed, I think I hit Redser’s shin and I heard a crack in my neck and thought about my kids straight away. I said I better lay still here. The lads got out to me then and went through a few bits and I could move my hands. I didn’t have any weird feelings just a small bit of tightness in my chest but I think that was more like a panic attack after hearing the crack in my neck.
“Thankfully, everything was fine. I told them I was fine and could I get up but they said no, once you’ve heard a crack, we’re not going to let you get up. I went out and got x-rays and I literally was showering with some of the lads then (after the game).”
In fact the only lasting remnant of the bang was an emotional one, a bit shook up and “a bit embarrassed as well”.
“The ould man (former Munster flanker Ger Earls) wasn’t happy when there was nothing wrong with me! It was scary hearing the crack... and thankfully my father, if he had hair he would have lost it, I could see when he came down to see me, he was devastated. I gave them all a bit of a fright but thankfully it was all good.”
The thumbs up from the stretcher that followed was intended for Edel, his fiancée and mother of their two children.
“My fiancée wasn’t at the game, one of the kids was at home, sick with a chest infection, so she wasn’t at the game so it was just to let them know I was okay.”
Earls sat out the win over Ulster but was present at Carton House last Sunday as Schmidt gathered 48 players for a 24-hour Ireland camp to take stock and lay foundations for the forthcoming RBS 6 Nations title defence.
“There was a bit of both, obviously how we can improve and what we can do in the future. There wasn’t anything too in-depth. It was getting to see each other and probably laying a few seeds as well.
“He likes to look forward as well, solve the problem, look forward.”
As far as Munster are concerned, there is not much worth looking beyond tomorrow’s rearranged crunch pool fixture at Stade Jean Bouin. Following home and away defeats to Leicester Tigers last month, the province needing a win to stay alive going into next week’s round-five return with Sergio Parisse and company at Thomond Park before a final trip to Treviso.
“Massive, massive game,” Earls said. “The pressure is on. It’s a new and big pressure for the squad that we have right now. Probably a couple of years ago, Munster would have been used to it, but this is probably, for this squad, the biggest game of our Munster careers. We’re just purely focusing on getting a win at the weekend and we’ll take it from there then.
“We’re not even looking at it as a two weeks or a three weeks, it’s literally this week, because if we don’t win this week, there’s nothing to play for then.”
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