Analysis: Keith Earls' intelligence is one of his biggest assets
When you think of some of Keith Earls' standout moments from last season it's generally the plays of great athleticism that stick out in our minds.
The cross kick catch against France prior to Johnny Sexton's match winning drop goal at the Stade de France, the spectacular cover tackle on Mattia Bellini against Italy at the Aviva Stadium, the electric footwork he showed against both Racing in Paris and Castres in Limerick in the Champions Cup.
It was the best season of Earls' professional career and it was littered with moments of brilliance that eventually saw the Munster winger claim the Rugby Players Ireland's 2018 Players’ Player of the Year award.
For a player who was consistently hampered by injury through the earlier years of this decade, Earls looks like he's now in the shape of his life and it's a huge credit to him and to the IRFU and the Munster medical and strength and conditioning teams, but Earls' athleticism can often overshadow just what an intelligent rugby player he is.
Just looking back at Munster's one-point win over Glasgow last weekend, Earls made a number of plays that just highlights his feel and understanding of the game.
Above Glasgow's Peter Horne spots some space inside the Munster half but Earls does a great job of tracking the flight of the ball and then staying on his feet just long enough so that Jean Kleyn and Chris Cloete can get back onside and support him in the ruck.
Munster retain possession but the kick could have found touch if it wasn't for Earls spotting the play well before it happened.
Again, below, we can see Earls work very well with the kick return, however, this time he's the supporting player rather than the retriever.
Munster full-back Mike Haley returns the kick at pace, but instead of taking the tackle or trying to beat a defender in front of him, he cuts across the Glasgow defensive line where Earls briefly halts his run, makes himself available for the offload and then in turn gives an offload once he is tackled by Glasgow captain Callum Gibbins,
It's a great offload from Haley, and although Munster eventually turn the ball over after Sam Arnold passes the ball to scrum-half Ali Price, it's great awareness from Earls and indicative of his play to look for the next pass after he's received the ball.
They're small details but they can make a big difference, especially in the open field.
Below Munster cut through the Glasgow midfield with a beautiful set play from a mauled line out that sees Earls join the attack from the left wing after a simple block move from first-receiver.
Warriors winger Rory Hughes jams in on the play but the presence of Haley on the outside stops him from jamming in on Earls and therein creates the hole.
Earls explodes through the gap but as soon as he finds a bit of space he straightens up, keeps the ball in two hands heading into contact and is constantly scanning the inside run on of J.J. Hanrahan before ultimately settling on the outside run of Mike Haley.
Glasgow defend the situation very well and work extremely hard to get back and chase down the play after Earls has made the initial break but it's another example of Earls' rugby intelligence.
His line is great, his proximity to Hanrahan by the time he receives the ball is perfect and his acceleration is blazing, but once again we can see that he's immediately looking for the next play and is not just blindly trying to beat defenders.
Earls' athleticism and speed has been there since he burst onto the professional scene and scored a scintillating hat-trick against the Dragons at Musgrave Park in September 2008.
At 31 it's still very much present, it's just complemented by a sharp mind that increasingly looks to make the right decision.