What next for Keith Earls?

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.

Leinster’s New Man

Matt O’Connor will be the next Leinster head coach.  He’s already met the players apparently, and the decision will be announced in the next few days.  It’s a swift turnaround from Leinster Rugby, who must have foreseen how things have since transpired with Joe Schmidt from the moment Louis Picamoles scored the equalising try in Lansdowner, or perhaps from the moment BNZ rolled out that 60-burger in June.

But who is this new coach and will he be any good?  Confession time: we don’t really know anything about him first hand.  So, as always, we welcome input from those who do.

Here’s what we do know.  He’s been Richard Cockerill’s right hand man at Leicester since 2008, where his job title was ‘Head Coach’, but he has effectively been their No.2  and before that he worked with the Brumbies, whose attacking style (think George Gregan and Stephen Larkham) apparently greatly informs his rugby philosophy.

Michael Dawson has made two winning appointments in a row by targeting young, ambitious coaches who have served an apprenticeship as a No.2 or performed well with a smaller club.  This appointment continues the theme.  With both Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt, Dawson got exactly what the doctor ordered, can he do so for a third time on the spin?  Cheika was brought in to stiffen the team up, and Schmidt to bring back some of the traditional flair that had been sacrificed in the process.  This time around, the watchword is ‘continuity’.  Schmidt’s Leinster ain’t broken, and O’Connor will be tasked with keeping the wheels turning smoothly, while dealing with some bumps in the road that lie ahead (more of this later).  Like Schmidt, he’s a technical coach with clear ideas on how the game should be played, and favours a running game with ball-in-hand.

Without being close enough to the goings on at Leicester, it’s hard to know just how much to attribute of what goes on there to him, but the augurs are reasonably good.  Leicester have never been a club readily associated with free-flowing rugby, but they do play a decent brand of footie.  They routinely top the try-count in the Premiership, usually by a large margin and were involved in the best game of Heineken Cup rugby of the season, a thrilling 15-15 draw with Ospreys played at breakneck pace for 80 minutes.  Ben Youngs is their key player and the backline works off his running angles and ability to bring those around him into play.  Yes, Manu Tuilagi is an important weapon for them and, no, Leinster don’t have any backs of his ilk, but not everyone in the Leicester backline is an Island-built monster.  Matt Tait is their fullback and former Leinsterman Niall Morris is holding down a starting berth on the wing.  All that said, they did play Toulouse with Thomas “the Tank Engine” Waldrom at openside this season, prompting us to tweet that if they won it would disprove all we thought we knew about the game.

Ok, so it’s another attack-minded coach who seems to have the ability to get his team scoring tries.  Sounds good.  But what sort of challenge awaits O’Connor?  For starters, Joe Schmidt is a tough act to follow.  Matching Schmidt’s achievements seems almost impossible but if O’Connor can at least match the class with which Schmidt conducts himself, that will be half the battle.  Leicester and Cockerill in particular have a reputation for whinging and that won’t endear him to Leinster fans.  In order to keep Leinster competitive at the sharp end of the Heineken Cup and Pro12, he’ll have to deal with a number of looming obstacles.  Three stand out as the most obvious.

  1. No Jonny Sexton next season.  Schmidt immediately identified Sexton as the key player in the Leinster team, and under his tutelage the fly-half has graduated from a fleetingly brilliant but occasionally jittery fly-half to a consummate matchwinner and Lions walk-in.  O’Connor will be seeking to do the same with Ian Madigan.  The process has already started, to the extent that Madigan was apparently strongly considered for selection in Gatland’s party this week.  The talent is all there and if indeed O’Connor is a Brumbies man through and through, he may well perfectlysuit Madigan, who has always looked like an Aussie five-eighth born in the wrong hemisphere.  O’Connor must build Leinster’s gameplan around the Blackrock kid’s unique attacking instincts.
  2. Tighthead prop. A province with a tighthead problem?  Come on in, Munster and Ulster will say, the water is fine.  Mike Ross won’t be able to go on forever and at 33, looks a shade over the hill, with this season’s performances a notch down on the previous two.  Michael Bent is not the answer, and it must be frustrating to see Jamie Hagan finally hitting his straps just as he is making for the exit.  There do appear to be prospects in Tadgh Furlong and Martin Moore, but producing props is a slow process; how long before they are ready to step up to regular Pro12 commitments, let alone Heineken Cup?  No obvious solution exists.
  3. Centres.  It seems increasingly likely Brian O’Driscoll will play on for another season.  Gordon D’arcy’s form for Leinster has been mostly excellent this season, and he seems to be very much on Madigan’s wavelength when they have played together.  The two old lags have at least one season left in them, but after that, who knows?  Fergus McFadden is the likely replacement for D’arcy, but he is a slightly less polished diamond (basically he’s the new Lewis Moody), double-chip-and-gathers notwithstanding.  At outside centre, things are sketchier.  Eoin O’Malley’s season has been a write-off and he needs to prove his fitness and deliver on his undoubted class next season if he is to be considered a suitable long-term replacement. And then there is Luke Fitzgerald.

If O’Connor can get over these hurdles, he will be well on his way.  Second row looks considerably brighter than it did twelve months ago, with Mike McCarthy arriving next season, Leo Cullen rejuvenated and staying on for one more year, Quinn Roux starting to make appearances (which is more than could be said with Ed O’Donoghue and Steven Sykes) and Devin Toner posting a very strong finish to the season.  He inherits a club with strong support, a winning culture and great players.