Cross your fingers, make a wish and whatever you do, whisper it quietly — Keith Earls is back in business.
The Munster, Ireland and Lions wing will not thank you for saying so but the evidence is compelling.
After yet another spell on the sidelines, Earls is finally healthy, fighting fit and exhibiting the kind of form that at the age of 27, could just signal the start of an exciting new chapter in his career as he reaches his rugby-playing prime.
Since returning in January from the surgery necessitated by a patellar tendon injury in his right knee suffered during a pre-season Ireland training camp, Earls has been in electric form for Munster, scoring five tries in 10 first-team appearances as his province have secured a coveted top-four place in the Guinness Pro12 with two games to spare.
Now comes the next challenge, beating third-placed Ulster at Ravenhill this afternoon and holding on to the top-two position that would deliver a much-coveted home semi-final berth for the league play-offs later this month.
The Ulster backs, many of them Ireland squad mates of Earls, are well aware of the threat he carries to their own hopes of a home knockout tie, with centre Darren Cave speaking this week of finishing games and then watching in-form Munster follow suit by tearing defences apart.
No finer example of that was Earls’s man-of-the-match performance against leaders Glasgow Warriors in Cork at the end of February, when the Munster wing scored a brilliantly taken try, chasing a perfectly judged Ian Keatley crossfield grubber kick, beating the last defender in the foot race and then at full tilt gathering the bouncing ball with a deft touch from the instep of his boot before touching down in the corner.
It was a try that not only kick-started a four-game scoring spree but demonstrated the speed, grace and footwork of a player at the top of his game.
Just be careful not to jinx it.
“Yeah, it’s been good,” Earls says with an understandable hint of caution. “Surprisingly, really after being out for so long but my fitness came back fairly quickly and I have had no real niggles or anything, which is great. It is the first time in two and a half years that my knee is feeling good so I am just keeping my head down at the moment.
“I got a few tries as well but I can’t get too far ahead of myself.”
When your career has been in stop-start mode for more than a couple of seasons due to a string of injuries, some serious, some niggling yet all of which have been extremely frustrating, it is difficult not to blame Earls, in his ninth season as a professional, for his reluctance to tempt fate by proclaiming himself to be finally at the peak of his powers.
“I feel like I’m around a long time as well, if you look at some of the players I played with, but still, at 27, you’re kind of coming into your prime.
“Hopefully I’m over the back of my injuries now and my body’s starting to develop and come into its prime and I can kick on and become a better player than I’ve been.”
With the World Cup looming, winning a first cap under Joe Schmidt is clearly a major objective for the Munster man, whose 39th and most recent Test cap came on a calamitous day in Rome in March 2013, when Declan Kidney’s tenure as head coach came to an end with a first Six Nations defeat to Italy.
It was also the afternoon when Earls suffered a serious shoulder injury.
It has been a catalogue of fitness issues since that has prevented him from putting himself in Test contention, and although cap number 40 has not yet materialised, Schmidt has kept faith with Earls throughout the last two years, with the wing an ever-present squad member during the recent and successful RBS 6 Nations title defence, despite having only recently returned to action.
“I found it encouraging because I was involved, selected for the squad after only playing maybe 60 minutes of rugby. I came off the bench at Zebre (on January 10) and played a half here (at Thomond Park against Sale) and got a bit tight with a groin strain but he (Schmidt) still brought me up to camp. So I got that right and he kept me involved in everything and made me hungry to try and get on the team.”
Such have been the mishaps, that Earls now signs off every week with Ireland at Carton House with a gentle reminder to Schmidt that he is still standing.
“I suppose my thing with him, I’m always laughing when we leave camp, every time I’d say to him ‘I got through another week without breaking down’.
“It would be great to be playing in semi-finals and finals and putting your hand up.
“Joe likes players performing under pressure in big games and it’s obviously great if we’re in those big games.”
Like almost every player Schmidt works with, Earls’s first extended camp with the Ireland boss during this season’s Six Nations has seen him fall under the New Zealander’s spell.
“It was great because when I had been up with Joe at the previous two or three camps, something always popped up with an injury or sickness and I was just mad keen to work with him and see what way he thinks.
“It’s phenomenal and really exciting the way he thinks about the game.
He’s a phenomenal man off the pitch as well, all-round. He’s a guy you want to play for and hopefully I’ll get the chance in the next few months if I keep my head down.”
Thankfully for Earls, that aim may be easily achieved with the impending arrival of he and his partner Edel’s second child. The Munster man’s eldest, daughter Ella-Maye, is three and a half and fatherhood is an vocation Earls has wholeheartedly embraced.
“It’s phenomenal,” he says. “It’s made me look at life in a different way. As rugby players, we can be quite selfish thinking about rugby.
“I remember Rog (Ronan O’Gara) always used to say to me, if you lose a game, you go home to your kids and they don’t know what game you’ve been playing, they just see you as dad and it just brings your mood back up.
“Everything is about them and you have to bring your mood up for them. So it’s been great, it’s really matured me. I like to have a good balance between rugby and family. I like to get out into the real world, just heading off to the park, having lunch with my fiancée and child, it’s great to get away from it and switch off.
“Some fellas live in it too much but I like to get my bits of work done and go home and completely switch off. I think it’s unfair if you bring rugby home if it’s a bad thing, to your kids and it’s just great to switch off as well.”
It all makes for a neat package. Earls the man, at ease with work-life balance, comfortable as parent and looking forward to a new life in his family; Earls the player, fit, firing on all cylinders as he approaches his prime and chasing a place on the biggest stage of all. And through it all, just keeping his head down and getting on with things.
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