Keith Earls and the role that could prolong his Ireland career
"When Keith Earls plays instinctively, he has you."
Keith Earls has played jerseys 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15 for Ireland but, since the 2015 World Cup, he grew into an ever-reliable on the wing.
Since he started at outside centre in that World Cup quarter final exit, at the hands of Argentina, Earls started 36 Test matches on either the right or left wing and scored 14 tries. Joe Schmidt trusted the Limerick native implicitly and his focus in constantly improving and evolving saw him excel in attack and defence.
Earls and Jacob Stockdale were the first-choice wingers at the 2019 World Cup but neither of Ireland's best finishers contributed a try. He returned to Munster and showed glimpses of his best but picked up a knock before the Guinness Six Nations that opened the door to Andrew Conway. Given how well he performed against Scotland and Wales, the No.14 should remain in Conway's possession for the Triple Crown decider at Twickenham.
Some Irish fans are calling for Earls, who had a fine cameo off the replacements bench at the weekend, to take the place of Stockdale on the left wing but Andy Farrell is unlikely to heed those calls. Instead, injury to Garry Ringrose should see Earls take up another role that could sustain the 32-year-old in this Irish team for the next two or three years.
On the latest episode of Baz & Andrew's House of Rugby, Barry Murphy and Andrew Trimble were joined by Jerry Flannery to look back on all the Guinness Six Nations action, and to discuss how Ireland can best use Earls.
Earls came on at outside centre when Robbie Henshaw left the field of play, on 45 minutes, for a Head Injury Assessment that he did not return from [although Andy Farrell did say, post-match, that Henshaw passed HIA 1]. He only made a couple of carries and tackles but his distribution put teammates into great attacking positions on three occasions.
"Selection-wise," Murphy began, "Keith Earls obviously raised his hand. Had some huge moments on Saturday as well. That pass for Larmour was unbelievable. He also had another little bit where he offloaded it to Larmour. And Larmour nearly scored. He put Conway away at another point.
"He's always been overlooked as a 13. He's been kinda written off as a 13; not overlooked; since probably 2011, 2012. He played [some of] the World Cup at 13. I always think, like, he's one of - especially for Munster now - he's one of their most experienced and talented players. And he can pass the ball as good as anyone. Like, defending him at 13 is an absolute nightmare.
"A lot of people would say he's too small to play at 13, to which I'd disagree. His decision-making is really good; he's so focused. I like him on the bench now, I have to say, bringing him on and having his ability coming off the bench would be, 'My God, what a rocket up your hole'."
Trimble agrees that Earls is an excellent option to cover midfield, if needed, but he would prefer to see him pushing Conway and Stockdale for those wing roles. Flannery chimed in with a recollection of when Earls first came into the Irish set-up in 2008 and what Brian O'Driscoll made of the youngster from Moyross.
"When he first came into the [Munster] team," Flannery recalled, "he was 15 and 13 and he was carving up all the time.
"And I remember when we went up to national camp, Drico just saying, 'This guy, when he plays instinctively, he has you'.
"It's when he starts to have the ball and thinks for a second, it gives you a second and a chance to recover. But if Earlsy just plays instinctively - gets the ball, puts foot-work on - his acceleration is so... he just creates such separation between himself and the defender once he steps he's just so hard to defend."
Earls can cover every backline position bar the half-backs from the replacements bench and Murphy feels that no matter where he does feature, he is a handful for defences.
"I've played outside him at 13 when he was 12 a few times," he commented. "I've played outside him on the wing when he was 13. Everyone has to sit down when he has the ball. Space is created and opens up all around him."
Earls' focus will be on getting back into jerseys 11 or 14 but, should Farrell warm to the idea of having a Swiss army knife on the bench, the Munster man could well join the 100 caps club thanks to his versatility.
WATCH THE LATEST HOUSE OF RUGBY HERE:
SUBSCRIBE TO BAZ & ANDREW'S HOUSE OF RUGBY: https://playpodca.st/house-of-rugby-ie
Barry Murphy and Andrew Trimble are joined in the House of Rugby studio by Jerry Flannery as they look back on a trio of Irish victories over Wales. They also discuss Keith Earls, 'Bottle Gate' at Murrayfield and Trimby has to call up Ulster Rugby for a job.