Pick me! Pick me!

Keith Earls really, really, really wants to play outside centre for Munster, and presumably Ireland.  The details are here in Earls’ interiew with Charlie Mulqueen in the Examiner.


It’s not the first time he’s made these sort of noises, and unlike his media-schooled colleagues, Keith Earls is the one Irish player who is something of an open book in interviews, and doesn’t seem to mind coming out with heartfelt, honest comments that could leave him in a tight spot. It’s great to see his wide-eyed enthusiasm for the game as well – makes one smile.

However, we’ve mixed feelings on his latest.  We’ve no problem with him saying he wants to play 13 – that’s fair, so why not come out and say it?  We’re always commenting that he’s been messed around too much in his career, so he’s right to try and nail down a position for himself.

But by saying he “hate[s] playing 11” he is in danger of making a rod for himself, and others.  He’s played the majority of his international career and much of his club games there, and if he hates it so much, he at least appears to have made a decent fist of it.  At some point he’ll be called upon to play there, and it puts unnecessary pressure on his coaches when they do it.

Last year his game improved hugely at 13 and he has surely earned the right to start the season in that position. We would see Earls as one of the players Penney should be looking to build the new Munster team around.  Trouble is as a centrally contracted player he’ll be missing the first few weeks of the season, so Laulala has a headstart in the 13 jumper.  Also, Laulala is an out-and-out 13 with little versatility – Earls can be accommodated elsewhere, but Laulala cannot.  Can Munster afford to leave such talent on the bench? Or can Penney, as a new coach, afford to marginalise one of his best players?

It’s a most interesting quandry for Penney.  Thirteenwatch starts early this year.



  1. Elsmido

     /  August 1, 2012

    The question is why did Munster recruit Lualala? If he was picked as cover then that’s what he should be. Unless they had always intended to move Earls around. Which means he will carry on as before.

    If indeed he is to be the successor to the Great One at 13, in the Irish side, what does it say about the communications between the national and provincial set up? If he is not, then who is? Or do they even know? This raises a lot of questions, to which there do not seem to be answers.

  2. radge fan

     /  August 2, 2012

    The headline is misleading. Earls’ doesn’t have a problem getting picked – one of the first names on the team sheet.

    I think you are also being a tad naughty in removing the quote from the context that it was made – which is: “You can’t be that selfish when it comes to a team and Rob said he’d do his best without promising anything. To be honest, I absolutely hate playing 11. Every bad game I’ve played, it’s been at 11. Maybe it’s a confidence thing because I haven’t grown up playing there. I feel I need to be closer to the ball whereas on the wing you might finish off a couple of tries, you might get a run-in, but you don’t touch the ball as often as you want or to make as many tackles.”

    Just to emphasise two points he made – 1. You can’t be selfish. 2. Rob said he’d do his best (although he also said that Rob sees him as a 13).

    From all accounts Penney also says what he means, and means what he says so he won’t have any problems with what Keith said. If he couldn’t deal with that, Munster is not the coaching job for Penney.

    I think it should also be remembered if Earls starts on the wing, thats Zebo out of the matchday 23 because it is highly unlikely Doug Howlett will be left out to accommodate either Laulala or Zebo.

    Elsmido – Munster recruited Laulala because it is particularly lack depth in that position due to the retirements of Barry Murphy and Jean de Villiers/Rua Tipoki were never properly replaced. (Downey is in for Mafi). Last season, Johne Murphy played a HCup game in the centre for Munster, so with Laulala we’ve got a fine player who has experienced NH rugby. Laulala was not recruited by Penney. Laulala will get plenty of gametime anyway, so its not like he will be left warming the bench for the next 2 years.

    • @Radge Fan The headline is a bit of fun, don’t fret on it. Of course Earls is not going to be dropped by Munster any time soon.
      As for being a bit ‘naughty’, we included a link in the piece to the original article for anyone who wants to read it. What more can we do? We are not in the business of copying and pasting wholesale from other publications.

  3. HenryFitz

     /  August 3, 2012

    I think it’s a good thing that Earls is discouraging his coaches from picking him at 11. Munster have Zebo, who’s even more of a try-machine than Keet, and Ireland have plenty of decent 11s like Fitzgerald, Gilroy, O’Halloran and Trimble. Even Conway can play there. Ireland are shallow at centre with Wallace, D’Arcy and Drico slowing down in sight of the finishing post. At the very least, it puts pressure on O’Driscoll and D’Arcy to perform consistently or Keet’ll have one of their jerseys. If that means Earls ends up as a sub some days, so be it.

    • Agreed Henry, in the main. Keet really won us over with his performances at centre last year, and of course we want him to play there. Our only gripe is that by saying he ‘absolutely hates’ playing 11, he goes a bit too far. Suppose Kidney wants to play him at 11, but has other players available (Zebo, Gilroy) who would love to play there? It leaves Deccie having to justify the decision to the media/rugby fans more than he’d ideally like to. It just put a bit more presure on his coaches, without really needing to.

      Besides, he looks like a pretty good 11 to us, however much he hates it – it’s not like it’s playing Shaggy at 12 or something. I’d still prefer 13 BOD, 11 Keet to any other combination of players available in those positions, so chances are he’ll end up there at some stage.

      All that said, his honesty is a refreshing change from the usual media-trained robots, and you can’t help but like the fella. Here’s hoping it works out for him this season.

      • HenryFitz

         /  August 3, 2012

        I’d have Zebo at 11 before Earls. In my opinion, winger is a position where the primary requirements are power and pace. The odd extravagant stepper like Williams can compensate for their lack of size, but in tight spaces near the touchline, speed and strength make the difference. Zebo is quicker and stronger. Although he lacks some experience and defensive nous, he’s a proper finisher and a specialist in the position. Keet is more dangerous in the centres where he can pick a line and use his pace and swerve to create space for others.

        In the 13 jersey, I’d have O’Driscoll still a head in front as he’s the better passer, footballer and defensive technician. But he’s shown some unusual frailties in all 3 areas recently and with his last searing line-break a distant memory (France 2009?), Earls is closer than he’s ever been. If Keet carries on improving his link play and defence at the current rate, he’ll be breathing down BOD’s neck for the 6N.

  4. @Henry – interesting personal preference, and wouldn’t be the same as ours, not by a long way. Earls is proven test quality on the wing, Zebo still has a way to go. Speed and strength are essential for sure, but (and it’s a bit of a hobby horse of ours) we’ve a massive preference for genuine footballers in the backline. The Monyes and Sackeys of this world leave us a bit underwhelmed, even at their best. Our idea of a top 11 would be Visser or North, guys who come off their wing and look for work, and who can play a bit. Zebo’s a good finisher with straight line speed, but Earls has a bit more football about him.

    Some interesting choices for Penney in any case. Munster’s season will be endlessly fascinating this season I think. Is Howlett back for the start of the season do you know?

  5. HenryFitz

     /  August 3, 2012

    There’s a certain minimum level of footballing skill an international winger would need, for fielding and returning kicks and counter-attacking. Zebo exceeds that fairly comfortably. He set up quite a few tries for the U20s. Munster’s lack of back-line variation last year meant that he was usually on the end of moves, rather than in the middle of them, though I remember a 20-yard spin pass going the other way at full tilt to Felix Jones against Cardiff. I’d say he has a bit more football than Monye, anyway. Maybe more than Savea too. Probably less than Gear, Ranger, Ioane, Mitchell, Visser and North. But he’s young. He’ll improve.

    Howlett’s in the squad for the La Rochelle match next week. I haven’t been this excited about a season since I first took up facile, jaded cynicism. A really high-class coach and lots of good young players coming through. With all 3 major rugby provinces set to play a similar style of play, it could be a good one for Ireland too.

    • @HenryFitz we saw that pass, and immediately thought “this guy has it” – regretably we haven’t seen anything like that since.

      We also disagree with the premise that his skillset “exceeds fairly comfortably” that of an international winger – his positioning is suspect and he looks extremely raw. The comparison to Savea is way over the top – Savea scored a hat-trick in the same game Zebo looked like a little boy lost.

      The point you make on next season is the pertinent one – you would like to see more development, and evidence of footballing nous. We’re still 50-50 on whether he’ll be an international wing.

    • HenryFitz

       /  August 3, 2012

      I see defensive understanding as separate to footballing skill. Zebo has a bit to learn defensively, but I don’t think he’s lacking much in terms of passing or kicking. His decision-making on the ball could improve, but that’ll come with experience. On the rawness scale, I’d say Zebo isn’t any more raw than Earls and Fitzgerald were when they got their breaks. Rare to medium rare, at a guess.

      Savea did score a hat-trick; that doesn’t mean he’s much of a footballer. My impression from his performances for the Hurricanes and NZ is that he’s boshy and has a decent offload, but is not so great going backwards or in counter-attack. He didn’t have to do much for his hat-trick against Ireland other than catch a few passes and power his way to the line. His footballing skills are at early Ma’a Nonu levels, and they’ll no doubt improve at a similar rate the way the Hurricanes play. He’s lining out alongside Andre Taylor and Cory Jane, so the comparison probably highlights his limitations, nevertheless they are quite obvious.

  6. mccartrd@tcd.ie

     /  August 4, 2012

    I agree with you HenryFitz, what I like about Zebo is he is a very different style of winger to most incumbents/up&comings in Ireland. He is like a young Hickie and could follow suit. He has PACE! Now naturally all wingers have gas, but Zebo has it in spades even for a winger. He has a fluid, gliding running style and given wingers are their quickest in their early 20s then Munster and Ireland would be wise to accept limitations of his if it means getting the best of his other attributes. Not to sound disparaging but Mike Ross cannot do anything of merit in the loose, can’t tackle well in open space, can’t carry and can’t run support lines. But he can hold up a scrum like no one else. I understand it sounds silly to compare Ireland’s most vital player to a young talent but I hope you see the point. Lets not judge players on what they don’t have but on what they do have. Conway, Dave Kearney, Fitzgerald, Darren Hudson all played their rugby as fullbacks growing up and have certain traits as such. Zebo was always a winger (played as 13 in fifth year for Pres Cork) for Munster and Ireland growing up. He just has that natural style of play that many of the full backs can’t grasp. These guys are outstanding players of course, but that is the one thing that Zebo as ahead of them. Kearney is a big strong boy as is Gilroy and while his try against Munster was sensational, it was different from most of his scores for Ulster, close range, tight space finishes. Gilroy has excellent footwork and what Stuart Barnes calls ‘touchline geography’, ie he knows where his feet are at all times. With Zebo I will accept the odd defensive blip if it means a great try scoring ratio and line breaks a plenty. The defense and intelligence can be coached into him by Penney, the pace and angles of running are all-natural.

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