Their time together in the Ireland team may have been limited to just 15 prior appearances but Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald will be delighted if tomorrow’s meeting with Canada goes as well as their first joint-venture against the Canucks.
It was seven years ago in Limerick that two of Ireland’s most exciting underage talents first came together in a Test match and the long-time friends from schoolboy rugby days made their mark, the more experienced Fitzgerald, playing inside centre, supplying the pass for Ireland debutant wing Earls to mark his first cap with a try as Canada were thumped 55-0.
A series of painfully well documented injuries for both of the 27-year-olds has restricted the exciting backs to a combined 71 caps and just 15 Tests on the field in tandem.
Yet it was an injury to someone else this week, Robbie Henshaw, that saw Leinster’s Fitzgerald drafted in as a replacement at inside centre to join Munster wing Earls on the team-sheet for tomorrow’s Millennium Stadium World Cup opener against the Canadians, their first RWC game together and a first Test reunion since the 2013 Six Nations, when ironically both players were injured during the horrible defeat to Italy in Rome.
Those bad memories will be erased this weekend though because Earls enjoys any time he can get on to the pitch alongside his friend.
“I met Luke in Clongowes — we had Irish schools camps there,” Earls said yesterday. “I was aware of him — sure, he was phenomenal in school. Then we played Irish Schools together and we clicked straight away off the field, like, being from two different parts of the country, two different upbringings even, but we clicked straight away and played Irish Schools together.
It’s been frustrating we didn’t really…. He’s a fella I do enjoy playing with because he’s obviously a dangerous player.”
Asked what he thought of Fitzgerald as an inside centre, Earls said he believed the Leinster back provided value “anywhere on the pitch, I’d love to see Luke Fitzgerald”.
It is Earls’ improvements as a defender as much as his attacking prowess that has seen the Munster star work his way through the string of injuries that kept him out of a Joe Schmidt’s Ireland team until this summer, almost two years into the New Zealander’s reign as head coach. Those attributes with and without the ball were to the fore in his two pre-season Tests, home and away against Wales, and Earls added: “I think in the position I play, defensively it’s important and it’s always something I work at to try to get better at.
“I’m not the biggest winger or the biggest centre in the world so it can be tough at times but I’m quite happy with my defence recently. I’m starting to stick on big fellas now. I’m doing a lot of work with (Ireland defence coach Les Kiss) Kissy, I’ve done a lot of work with (assistant coach) Ian Costello in Munster.
“That’s one part of my job maybe where I’ve been criticised at times, it’s quite an important position in the field to defend and if you miss a tackle there then, more than likely, there’s going to be a try. I’ve been quite happy with the way I’m going at the moment.
“Sometimes at training your habits will be great but once the pressure comes on you can go back into old habits — you might start going high on big fellas, go into a safety mechanism. So I’m just trying to embrace the pressure and stick to what I’ve been doing all week in training.”
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