IN 2000 — the last time Ireland beat France in the Six Nations Championship in Paris — Keith Earls displayed his artistic talents, producing a fitting drawing to mark the occasion.
In art class the following Monday, the then 12-year-old decided to draw a caricature of Brian O’Driscoll scoring one of this three tries surrounded by three hapless Frenchmen – each of them crying their eyes out!
This week, as he prepares a Six Nations debut on Saturday, he is hoping he can contribute to a re-run of that memorable victory, the first in Paris since 1972 and, despite the odds against Ireland, he is looking forward to the prospect of taking on the French in their own backyard.
“I’m looking forward to it massively; sure it’s a tough place to go but I’ve got a bit of experience with the Heineken Cup so I can’t see any reason why I won’t be up for the challenge. Back in 2000, there were a lot of young fellows who went there without much fear; it was much the same in the last couple of visits but it didn’t happen for the teams.
“We just need to go over there and get a good start; the last couple of times Ireland had to fight back. We have a good game plan set down so we’ll try to play that and, hopefully, get the right result.
“The first quarter, I suppose, is very important against any French team; if you get the first couple of scores you can nearly turn the crowd against them. It’s vital we get a good start, vital we let them know we’re over there to play and not just to make up the numbers,” he said.
Earls knows the Irish mindset and is confident they will be strong enough to cope with any challenge posed by France, reasoning that the Irish provinces have benefited from the experience of winning on the road these past few years, not least in France.
He cited Perpignan v Munster as the perfect example to back his argument: “Before we met Perpignan they had only lost once in 28 games at home and we had to go out with the right mentality, which we did. That was a huge win by any standards.
“It’s always difficult to win on the road but that’s the challenge and Irish teams have shown themselves capable of meeting that challenge,” he said.
“I’ve always dreamed of playing for Ireland and this is my first Six Nations start so it’s really exciting; in a sense I think I should be pinching myself. I can’t wait, I’m looking forward to it and glad to get the chance.
“It was disappointing to lose out against Italy. I thought I was in with a shout after playing against South Africa and Fiji in the autumn, but I suppose moving to 13 with Munster didn’t help and Trimby (Andrew Trimble) was in great form; he scored a great individual try against Bath in the Heineken Cup and had been brilliant, so he deserved a run although it was tough from my point of view.”
Earls claims he doesn’t suffer from pre-match nerves.
“It’s hard not to think about the game but you can use up a huge amount of energy in the hours leading up to the match worrying about what might or might not happen.
“I keep myself occupied doing other things and even when we’re on the pitch before the game I wander around pretending nothing in particular is happening,” he said.
He looks to other leading sportsmen for inspiration and tells of being impressed by a clip on YouTube showing the legendary Maradona preparing for a big game some years ago.
“I saw him working on all these skills, playing to the crowd and he looked so relaxed. That was cool because here was a guy who was well able to perform under pressure. I just thought to myself that this was the way to go, the way to relax and let things look after themselves.”
Closer to home he has been working with a sports psychologist who has got him to focus on the positives: “I’ve learned to believe that the little things can make a difference, like making the first catch, taking the first pass to ease you into a game and diverting away from the natural instinct to want to do something special straight away.”
That’s not to say, of course, he wouldn’t like to do something special in Paris this weekend – and he would be really chuffed if some other rugby-mad kid in Moyross asked his teacher for a box of crayons on Monday morning.
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