This Six Nations has been a little bit different for Munster and Ireland’s Keith Earls.
The Moyross man missed out on the action as Ireland got their campaign up and running with a win over Scotland. Next up against Wales, he started on the bench before entering the fray at the 45th-minute mark to replace Robbie Henshaw at outside centre.
To put this into context, in the last three seasons, Earls has started every Six Nations game for Ireland on the right-wing. That’s 15 Six Nations games in three seasons in the same position and from the referee’s first whistle.
Of course, that streak has now come to an end but the talented and experienced Limerick man was happy with how he performed in a position where his last start in a green jersey came in the 2015 World Cup exit at the hands of Argentina although he did deputise there last year against Italy midway through the match.
“It was good,” Earls said.
“It was the first time in a year. The last time I went in there in the last Six Nations was against Italy but the two boys in the centre for Wales were a different kettle of fish but, yeah, I enjoyed it. The body feels good and that’s the main thing.”
One of the highlights of Earls’ performance against Wales was a superb, lengthy tip-on pass to Jordan Larmour with George North breathing down his neck.
“Yeah, I enjoyed it [the pass].
“Under Joe [Schmidt], he had us wingers trying to pass quite a bit. Stephen Larkham is huge on it as well about getting quick hands and passing under pressure, and Catty’s [Mike Catt] massive on it as well so it’s something that we’ve been doing the last couple of years and months, but particularly the last couple of weeks under Stephen and Catty.”
The level of impact Earls provided in the win over Wales highlights the strength in depth which Andy Farrell now has at his disposal which bodes well for the future.
There’s also a renewed level of confidence within the squad under Farrell – the players seem more relaxed, they’re enjoying the build-up to a Test match more than they did in the past and to put it simply, it seems more fun.
Earls agrees with this take as he reflects on his time with Munster where there was a shift from the old guard to the new generation and with it, a more relaxed approach to everything.
The Limerick man echoes previous comments made by Rory Best where the former Ireland captain suggested there might have been too much input from the coaches in and around the Captain’s Run towards the latter end of the week before a big Test match.
That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.
“Yeah. I think as you said, there were times when we were scared to laugh. If you were laughing you weren’t switched on or you weren’t concentrating or you weren’t being professional. But I think in the last week before we did the Captain’s Run then we didn’t meet again until we were getting on the bus going to the game.
“Usually you’d have a couple of meetings beforehand and you might have a meeting at 10 in the morning and the anxiety starts coming in from there whereas it’s [now] completely chilled. We are trying to enjoy ourselves but once you walk out in the four lines you have to be switched on.
“It’s being able to switch on for the hour or so rather than wasting energy all morning or two days or a day out, wasting energy on thinking about plays or stuff like that. Yeah, it’s definitely a lot more relaxed in Munster and Ireland as well.”
“As I said there it’s been a lot more chilled. We’re barely in the classroom as well. We see our classroom as being on the field. Faz [Andy Farrell] brings down a tv to the side of the field at the HPC [High-Performance Centre] and we’ll look at a play and then we’ll go out and rep it. It’s just coaches are different.
“Thinking about Twickenham, it’s an unbelievable place to go, but I’m probably only thinking about it 10 minutes a day rather than 24/7.”
Of course, the positives and negatives associated with Joe Schmidt’s Ireland and Farrell’s Ireland will depend on results.
In this instance, the fresh and less intense approach is viewed in a positive light because Ireland are winning but if Ireland lose to Italy in round four, for example, then the knives would be out. That is the nature of professional rugby.
Nevertheless, Earls admits that Farrell is implementing a new approach and it is one that he is enjoying.
“I think Andy backs our qualities as well to be able to deliver what he shows us. Look, it’s a new philosophy and it’s completely different from the way we’ve been playing and it’s great. We’re only two games into it and we’re two from two.”
The conversation reverts back to Earls’ own journey in the last year. He admits that he found the going difficult in 2019 due to injury and the intense workload he had to commit to in order to get his body right.
The aftermath of the World Cup and Christmas brought a much-needed break but he’s now desperate to get back into the thick of the action.
“Yeah, between the body and the knees and everything during the pre-season they wrapped me [in cotton wool] and I missed a couple of games so I was just constantly trying to get them right and you’re not being able to switch off because on the days off, I was in the gym, keeping the knees loaded.
“It was just full-on, full-on rugby and then, as I said, unfortunately, we were knocked out [of the World Cup] and I got away and spent a bit of time with the kids in Centre Parcs with Peter O’Mahony and his kids, and it was just a normal life getting away from rugby. But it’s amazing, a week later then you’re like, ‘Jeeze, I just want to get back on the field now’.”
“We had time off at Christmas and it was probably my first time in my career I’d say, and I found myself drinking and eating over the Christmas. It’s amazing, when you’re playing you’re like, ‘Jeeze, I wish I could be out with the family or out with the lads having drinks.’
“And I was doing that this year and I was like, ‘I definitely prefer playing.’ I think the couple of days is great but then after a week you want to get back into it.”
With an impressive performance under his belt in Ireland’s bonus-point win over Wales, it would be no surprise if Farrell gave Earls the nod from the off as Ireland look to get back to winning ways over the old enemy in Twickenham next Sunday.