It was this time last week four years ago that Keith Earls was named in the Lions squad. He was the archetypal bolter, barely established at international level – he’d been capped against Canada in the previous Autumn series – but showing red-hot form in the lead in to the Lions announcement, culminating in a brilliant performance in the famous thrashing of the Ospreys at Thomond Park that signified the peak of the great Munster team of the noughties.
As it transpired, the tour didn’t go all that brilliantly for Keet, but he overcame a difficult start (he dropped his very first bomb in his very first game and looked harrowed by the experience) to get lots of gametime and it was put down as a learning experience that would stand to him, and surely he’d be back in four years time. Except that is not how it’s turned out at all. A flash Munster winger with a nose for the tryline was considered unlucky to miss out on the squad, but that was Simon Zebo. In the shake-up, Earls was nowhere, barely mentioned in the parlour-game that is the multiple selection of theoretical squads by every writer, blogger or pundit.
He was largely absent from Munster’s recent resurgence, playing a minimal role in their two best performances of the season. He was injured for the Harlequins match, and played in the unfamiliar 14 shirt against Clermont and left the field early in the second half. His replacement, Denis Hurley scored the try that put Munster back into the match. This season he also lost his starting shirt for the first games of the Six Nations, though he quickly got into the team on the back of injury to his clubmate Zebo.
It doesn’t quite count as a fall from grace; Earls is still highly thought of in Munster, and no doubt Joe Schmidt will continue to see him as a valued squad member for Ireland. But it does seem like Keith Earls has found himself somewhat squeezed out of the foreground. Part of the issue is the positional to-ing and fro-ing that Earls has endured throughout his career. Last summer, he made a pretty big deal of telling the media he ‘hated’ playing on the wing, and was adamant that he wanted to play centre exclusively for Munster. In spite of having Casey Laulala in his squad, Penney granted Earls his wish and picked him at centre for much of the season. But it’s been curious to watch Munster deliver their best when Casey Laulala played 13 (and crucially, when, for almost the first time, Laulala’s teammates appeared to be getting on his wavelength).
The Earls-for-13 movement hasn’t been quite as terrible as some have made out, and he’s had his moments at centre. He certainly has the running skills to play there, and at times it’s important to focus on what he can do rather than what he can’t. A couple of months into the season, Earls was in terrific form and looked comfortable in the role. Witness the try in Ravenhill, where Earls touched the ball three times, one around-the-corner pass, another pass fast, flat and in front of the player running on to it, and the third a try-scoring support line.
But since then things have stalled, and the issue of Earls’ lack of distribution skills just won’t go away. The other problem is that he cannot simply go back onto the left wing again; there’s a new sheriff in town over there. It leaves him looking at another year trying to get to grips with the full range of skills required to play centre, or possibly redefining himself as a right wing, taking up the gap about to be vacated by Dougie Howlett. Ultimately Rob Penney will have the final say. As the season wore on, we got the feeling he sees his ideal 13 as more of a distributor than Earls can ever really be. When Munster offered Luke Fitzgerald a contract and the promise of the 13 shirt, what did it say about Rob Penney’s faith in Earls’ continuing suitability for the role?
It can be unfortunate for players when a single event so dominates the public consciousness, but for Earls the moment where he failed to pass to Brian O’Driscoll having made a clean line break against Scotland in the Six Nations this season has almost come to define his lack of awareness of others around him.
It looks like next season could involve yet another positional change for Earlsy. You could argue that we Irish are unnecessarily daunted by versatility and being a jack-of-many-trades, but for a player who has admitted to issues with self-confidence and has talked in the media about his determination to play in a specific position, it has the look of a backward step.