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20th Aug 2023

Keith Earls did the thing he vowed he’d never do again, but it was just too perfect

Patrick McCarry

Keith Earls

“Probably a bit over the top, but I enjoyed it.”

There is a bit of divil to Keith Earls, you know.

John Hayes, back when he was in the Munster squad, used to get young Keith to scoot to the shops, when the seniors were training and he was just breaking through, and pick him up some John Player Blue cigarettes.

“Earlsy would wrap some red tape around the end of one and pretend to be smoking one of mine as I was coming off the field, from training,” Hayes recalled. “He’d have his hood up, one leg back against the wall with a cigarette in his mouth – ‘Here, d’ya want the arse-end of that?!’

For the most part, Keith Earls was a quiet enough lad that never stirred the pot too much. He went about his business, backed himself to do a job but was never a chest thumper. Amongst the lads that knew him well, though, there was a sly bit of craic in him.

It was probably why Conor Murray and Brian O’Driscoll had wry grins, back at Otago Stadium in Dunedin, back in 2011 when Earls went all Chris Ashton when scoring a try. It was the night he turned 24 and Earls was possessed by an animated spirit that we did not see much in those early years.

Andrew Trimble made a great break, in the 79th minute, and Earls went with him. He received a pass at full pelt and did the math in those split seconds – 29-6 ahead, 30 seconds to play, second try of the night AND it’s my birthday. Out came the swan dive:

Keith EarlsKeith Earls dives over to score against Italy in October 2011. (Credit: Sportsfile)

An apologetic Keith Earls

Around 90 minutes after the full-time whistle had sounded, that night in Dunedin, I had the pleasure of speaking with Keith Earls.

He was still buzzing from the victory, which set Ireland up for a quarter final against Wales, and soaking in the experience of scoring four World Cup tries in the space of seven days. However, there was one thing he wanted to set straight.

“That’s not like me,” he said of the swan dive score. “It’s something I’ve never done before. I’m sure I’ll hear from my dad about that one, and rightfully so. I’ll have to apologise for that one.”

His father, Ger, was a hard a nails Munster [and Young Munster] player back in the 1980s and 90s. Young Keith, their unofficial mascot, ball-boy, tee carrier and number one fan, had always been raised to play tough but fair. As ground staff packed up, and the Irish and Italians flocked to the Dunedin bars, Earls was proud of his tries but embarrassed that someone might think he was rubbing it in with the lavish celebration.

As the years went on, Earls would either fling the ball sky-ward, after touching down, or do that uppercut punch of celebration. Against England, 12 years later and on the night of his 100th Test cap, he scored a try that showed he still had a bit of divilment left in him.

Earls came on with just over 20 minutes to go, in Ireland World Cup warm-up win over England, and proved he was a man for the occasion – as he has so many times over the years – with a try that killed off his opponents. Josh van der Flier made a superb carry, Conor Murray delivered quick ruck ball and Bundee Aki cut out two teammates to give Earls a dart at the line.

Freddie Steward was toast after that Aki pass so there was only the haring subs Danny Care and Marcus Smith to stop him. Earls could have went low but, from three yards out, his mind was made up – one last step, then a spring. He vaulted into the air, dotted down before the cavalry arrived and did a tumble for good measure, before bounding up with a fist-pump of celebration.

Keith Earls solo second on a vaunted list

Post-match, Keith Earls joked that he needed the embellished, diving finish to get the try scored after Bundee Aki’s pass had been a smidge too high.

With a grin cracking across his lips, he joked, “It was probably a bit over the top, but I enjoyed it.”

That try solidifies the Limerick native’s solo second in Ireland’s list of all-time tryscorers, he is on 36, some 10 back from Brian O’Driscoll. Given that the Word Cup is likely his last dance at Test level, he would have to break a record held by Jonah Lomu, Julian Savea and Bryan Habana to make O’Driscoll sweat a bit.

Getting to the World Cup is no guarantee, though. There is a chance that Earls could have already had his swan song in green – Ireland going for a 19/14 split of forwards to backs could yet see him the odd man out.

With Earls, though, you just know to never write him off. Even when the odds are long, he can surprise you.

Even when he gets a pass over his head and still has two men to beat, he can find those old afterburners and finish with a flourish. He just can’t help himself sometimes.

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