Keith Earls back on centre stage

Just when he thought it was safe to go back onto the wing, Keith Earls could be pressed into service in Munster’s injury-hit midfield.

Having been held back from duty under the IRFU’s player management programme, Earls and fellow Ireland star Conor Murray are set to be unleashed for the first time this weekend when Munster bid to get back to winning ways with a Guinness Pro12 round three trip to Newport Gwent Dragons.

Rassie Erasmus saw his team take a step back last Friday when, having made two forward, by winning their opening game on the road at Scarlets, they slumped to a home defeat in Cork against Cardiff Blues. That 24-23 loss also came with the further setback of fresh injuries, Ireland flanker Tommy O’Donnell (concussion), lock Dave Foley (elbow) and inside centre Rory Scannell (neck) failing to finish the game at Musgrave Park, and all three have been ruled out for this weekend.

While Scannell’s injury is not as bad as first feared by director of rugby Erasmus, and he is set to return for the home clash with Edinburgh in a fortnight, the loss of another centre on top of longer-term absentees Francis Saili and new signing Sam Arnold means his unavailability is the South African’s most pressing concern.

Loan signing Jaco Taute, capped at centre for the Springboks, has been in the country less than a week and will not be ready for a debut this weekend. Which means Earls could be set for a return to the position he thought he had left behind in favour of focusing his energies purely out wide, particularly with wings Ronan O’Mahony and Darren Sweetnam impressing their new boss in the first two games of the campaign, first with the now-injured full-back Simon Zebo and then in a back three with Andrew Conway.

“We’d love (Earls) to focus on the wing but luckily he’s the kind of guy that doesn’t really care where he plays, he just likes to be in the team,” Erasmus said. “I think we’re in a situation now where he has to be considered there.

“He’s back and fully fit and the wings are doing really well, Manky (O’Mahony) and Sweets, they’re some of our standout players and Andrew is just back last week from getting him to game fitness, while Zeebs is coming back to full fitness, it’s been a while since he got injured so another two or three weeks to go before he’s coming back. So we’re getting there and Earlsy will have to be considered at 13.”

Erasmus will hope to have O’Donnell, Scannell and prop Stephen Archer back to face Edinburgh while back rows Peter O’Mahony and Robin Copeland are nearing returns to full fitness but Foley’s elbow injury could be longer term.

Of the returning Earls and scrum-half Murray, Erasmus will not expect to get a complete 80 minutes out of either player given this weekend will be their first game-time since the third Test against South Africa in Port Elizabeth on June 25.

“The first two, three games it’s tough on you and not just because you’re without them but you can’t put match fitness on them. So that’s always the challenge. Like CJ (Stander) last week, it’s likely with Conor and Earlsy this week, although you want your best players to be on the park you have to think how you’re going to give them game time.

“They won’t be match-fit, you can’t simulate matches in training and they wouldn’t have played any warm-up matches so it’s now our challenge, with the injuries we have, to make sure they can go as long as they physically can, not to try and get 80 minutes out of the guys, that’s not possible.”

What is entirely possible is that Erasmus will get a positive reaction from his players to last weekend’s disappointing reverse. The return to training on Tuesday had a particularly physical edge and the feistiness continued into yesterday’s session at the University of Limerick, which was attended by Ireland coaches Andy Farrell, Simon Easterby and Greg Feek, when some abrasiveness at a breakdown continued long after the ball had the left the scene. Not that Erasmus was overly concerned.

“We were all frustrated after an away win and then adding a home loss,” he said. “If we play that bad it’s frustrating and you lose by one point and you are still in the game, it’s frustrating. I think that’s what showed a little bit today, but it was nothing too serious.

“I think that’s competitiveness, but it’s frustration too. To let one slip so easy. Not that I’m taking anything away from our opposition, but while we were playing so poorly, we still had the ability to swing the momentum in that game. Competitiveness and frustration, it shows where we are as a team, and that’s nice.”

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