Can Ireland’s new boys survive in Twickenham tomorrow?
Keith Earls, as good-natured and polite an interviewee as you could hope to encounter, could only respond to that question with a chuckle, his response to a bruising month or so in camp alongside Stuart McCloskey, Josh van der Flier and Ultan Dillane.
“Look at the size of Stu, he’s 17 stone,” said Earls who, at 5’ 11”, is the smallest among a back line that will be monstrous by previous Irish standards. “Josh is the kind of guy who’ll rip a ball off you all day and I was doing a couple of tackling bags with Ultan there and it was like hitting a bull.
“The weight of him. I said it to John (Sexton): ‘How heavy is that fella?’ Normally you might drive him back a bit, but it was just, bang. Stop. They’re three physical guys so hopefully they can do a job for us on Saturday.”
Joe Schmidt revealed how quiet CJ Stander had been in Ireland camp before the Munster captain’s Test debut against Wales three weeks ago and McCloskey, van der Flier and Dillan have reportedly been similarly reticent with their tongues.
Clearly, their actions have spoken adequately for them.
Earls, at 21, was just a year older than van der Flier and Dillane when he made his own Ireland debut seven years ago, but the Munster wing sees a marked difference in the seemingly fearless manner with which the trio have approached such a monumental marker in their lives.
“You mightn’t have seen it with me, but I was always tormenting myself in my own head,” he explained. “They just come in as cool as the breeze, taking it all in their stride. I would have loved to have been like that at their age.”
You could speculate that he wouldn’t mind finding himself where McCloskey will be tomorrow, too: in the centre. After all, it was his stated ambition for a long time to carve out a regular niche for himself in midfield with province and country.
Schmidt has regularly name-checked him as a candidate for a midfield appointment and mentioned him again in despatches yesterday when explaining his reasoning for choosing London as the location for McCloskey’s debut.
Earls claims indifference.
Playing rugby is as narrow a goal as he is prepared to harbour now — or admit to publicly — and he sounded content to be patrolling the Twickenham tramlines this weekend having been forced out of the reckoning for Paris with the concussion he suffered against Wales.
Frustrating doesn’t cut that.
His defence has regularly been questioned, but he was excellent in that department against the Welsh, never more so than in the controversial tackle on Liam Williams for which he was unlucky to concede a penalty.
“It was frustrating because defence is something I have been working on closely with Ian Costello at Munster and in camp as well. Some people say to you it’s great to get a break. We don’t need a break, I like momentum. I like to keep going, keep going.
“You get a lot of confidence when you keep going. I had the return to play protocols covered and I was hitting a few bags a small bit. So hopefully I can bring that performance in this week because I was happy against Wales.”
He’s a senior player now, weird as that sounds, to him and to us and he accepted that he has a role to play in helping the new midfield partnership of McCloskey and Robbie Henshaw bed in, not least on the defensive side where Jared Payne’s organisational skills and instincts will be missed.
Earls has been there, done that and worn the jersey.
His first two appearances against England delivered wins, the second of them decorated with his one try against them in five attempts, in Twickenham. Since then it has been three defeats on the bounce and it will be some achievement if that trend is halted this time.
“It’s not an easy place to go,” Earls said of the London venue. “It’s their first game back at Twickenham since the World Cup, so I assume they will want to make a statement and they’ll want to give something to the fans.”
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