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.

Season in Review: Leinster

What a pity.  Two scores in front with nine minutes to go with a historic double knocking on the door.  But even then you never felt Leinster were in control.  With Poite on their back at scrum time, a couple of costly errors gave the all important territory to Ospreys: Sexton’s booming spiral kick bouncing just into touch and the crossing incident when Leinster were attacking the Ospreys 22.

Such is life, as the French say.  Once again, the double has proved elusive. Leinster will be aggrieved at Poite’s refereeing of the scrums and the offside line, but in truth they never really controlled the game – and it wasn’t Poite’s refereeing that caused them to miss so many tackles.  Ospreys’ quick feet and offloading game got them through plenty of gaps.  It all served to underlie just how difficult it is to win back to back titles. Leinster restrained their post-final celebrations, and clearly wanted this trophy, but, down to the reserve front row for most of the match and missing Sean O’Brien, it was not to be.  Maybe they used up their good luck chips with that Fofana ball (mis)placement.

The sad thing is that the players will wake up this morning feeling gutted when they have so much to shout about over an extraordinary season.  They lost just four games all season, and took their game to new heights.  At times – the first halves against Cardiff and Bath, the second against Clermont, and the final against Ulster stand out – their passing and ingenuity in attack were unplayable.

What’s more, they scorched the earth in a season when their two marquee forwards had difficult seasons.  Sean O’Brien endured something of a ‘second season syndrome’, (though he found his form for the knockout stages of the Heiny) and Heaslip had a quiet campaign confined mainly to dirty work at the coalface.  In addition, BOD was out for all but the final few weeks.

Huge credit must go to the footsoldiers who stepped up.  Kevin McLoughlin had a terrific campaign and deserves his call-up for the summer tour.  Shane Jennings had another solid season, McFadden stepped up another notch and place-kicked exceptionally well for much of the campaign.  Devin Toner – previously a bête noir of ours – improved out of sight.  There were plenty of starlets on view too, with Ian Madigan, whose sweet pass and probing runs have been thrilling to watch.

We’re going to single three individuals out for special praise, contrary as it may be to the notion of the ultimate team game.  Joe Schmidt, the coach extraordinaire for his high standards, now infamous video meetings and empowering the team to play the way they do.  It’s particularly impressive how the ‘midweek’ team is able to fit in seamlessly and play in the same ‘Leinster way’, albeit against lesser opponents.  His recruitment of Brad Thorn to shore up the second row showed the sort of ambition and shrewd thinking that sets him apart.  Secondly, Johnny Sexton, whose form this season has been unmatched in Europe.  His pass is sublime, he can boom the ball 60m down the pitch and his place kicking nudged close to 90%.  He’s Leinster’s Cranky General.  Finally, Rob Kearney.  The forgotten man last season, his feats under the high ball defy belief, but his determination to run the ball back and his improved passing game were just as impressive.

It’s hard to see Leinster falling off a cliff next season, and they should be competitive again.  Three in a row?  They’ll certainly be favourites, but every team will be gunning for them.  Succession is being managed well, and the eventual replacements for Generation Totes Ledge (Dorce, Drico etc.) have already amassed plenty of experience.  This year they evolved from an offloading team to more of a passing team, and chances are they’ll have to look for more innovations next year while the chasing pack analyse how to trouble them.  Ospreys certainly seem to have found a means of containing them, perhaps there’s a model to be followed there.  Of course, as Munster know all too well, bad luck with injuries can slash a season to pieces, and for all Leinster’s depth they’d be vulnerable if they lost Sexton, Ross or O’Brien to name but three.

The main issue is the second row, and it has been looming since Nathan Hines left.  Brad Thorn bids farewell, and leaves a huge hole to fill.  Leo Cullen was withdrawn from both finals before the 60 minute mark – can he deliver another season as a first pick?  It seems unlikely.  Devin Toner’s performance yesterday was hugely encouraging and he should force himself into the role of regular starter in the big games next year, on the loosehead side of the scrum.  A tighthead lock appears to be on the shopping list (suggestions welcome).  We will watch new arrival Tom Denton (signed from Leeds Carnegie, and seemingly with a good reputation) and academy graduate Mark Flanagan’s progress with interest.

Leinster won’t always be this good, so best enjoy the moment and try not to dwell too much on the one that got away.

Season to remember: Kevin McLoughlin.  Abrasive blindside and terrific lineout forward.  Doesn’t catch the eye but something of a workaholic and textbook tackler. 

Season to forget: we had high hopes for Fionn Carr’s return to the provine, but broken field line breaks could be counted on one hand.

Best match: Clermont 15-19 Leinster.  A titanic battle between the two best teams inEuropethat came right down to the wire.

Best performance: Leinster 42-14 Ulster.  Sucked up everything Ulster could throw at them and racked up the tries with cold ruthlessness.

Worst performance: Ospreys 27-3 Leinster.  Take your pick from three defeats to the Ospreys; this mauling was pretty nasty.

Thanks for the memories: Big Bad Brad may only have played a handful of games, but his contribution was massive.  From listening to the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, so great is his charisma that meeting the man is like that brilliant passage in The Great Gatsby where Nick Carraway describes the titular Gatsby’s smile.

See you next season: Dom Ryan’s campaign was obliterated by injury.  We have high hopes for him.  Lets hope he can make the long awaited breakthrough next year.

Heineken Cup Final: The View from the (Following) Afternoon

The house divided in the latter half of last week, and remains so until today. Tomorrow we’ll be back to our united front, but for one last time, each half of Team Cordite will look at the final from a partisan perspective.  Here are Palla’s thoughts from Twickenham.

As Sean Cronin raced to touch down under the posts and the clock ticked into the red zone, this blue-clad Leinster fan’s first thought was that the all the talk of the strength of the respective benches had panned out.  In fact, as is the case less often than you might think, the fairly straightforward pre-match expectations largely came to pass.   Maybe the margin of victory was glossed a bit, but plenty of the pundits’ boxes got ticked: Ulster forwards serving up a good fifty-ish percent of possession – check.  Leinster backline having more invention with their share of the ball – check.  Leinster bench able to take the game away from the opposition – check.  Gulf in class between the opposing 10s – check.

The one thing that didn’t come to pass was Ulster’s put-on-the-squeeze gameplan.  In fact they played quite a bit of rugby, looking to work the ball to their dangerous wide runners quickly with long cut out passes – as we thought they’d do against Embra, but never really managed.  They played pretty well at times and contributed much more to the game than the scoreline suggests.  Paddy Wallace had an outstanding match from where I was sitting, and Cave and Gilroy threatened.  They just weren’t quite sharp enough – Trimble’s season has tapered a bit and Ulster needed him at his most dynamic, and they played a passing game but left their best passer on the bench.  On Friday’s head-to-head I’d said I thought Ulster might benefit from having iHumph in the team to bring a bit of flair.  Turns out they asked too much of young Jackson and in iHumph’s 20-minute cameo he showed what they’ll be missing next year.  He was a risk that had to be taken to give Ulster any chance.

But this was Leinster’s day.  Two in a row, three from four, on for the double – this is a team that is writing the history books right now.  Future generations will ask if you were actually around when BOD, Sexton, O’Brien and Kearney were all in the same team together, and really, were they as good as everyone says they are?  So start practicing those stories about how Kearney would leap 50m into the air to pluck high balls out of the sky, or how O’Brien would hand-off seven bullocks at a time in his Tullow fields.  Folk will want to hear them.

There were a few dropped balls, the odd sliced clearance, and at around the 60 minute mark, I had the feeling Leinster were making hard work for themselves.  Then they brought on the bench.  Every reserve seemed to have an impact.  Jennings’ arrival and the speedier ruck ball were hardly coincidental.  Toner made one great carry and followed up with the softest of hands moments later. van der Merwe looked seriously up for it and Sean Cronin was hugely effective as a carrier – he has been great off the bench all season.   Leinster won the last 18 minutes 18-0. It served to underly the remarkable depth of Leinster’s squad.  van der Merwe, for example, is rarely talked about by anyone but has been a totem for Leinster over two seasons.  Healy knows he can waste himself in 60 minutes and Leinster can bring on a teak-tough, technically excellent replacement to see out the match.  Ireland, to name but one team, don’t have the same luxury.

Leo Cullen’s choice of Shane Jennings to lift the cup was a lovely moment, and was testimony to Jennings standing in the squad, even if he no longer starts regularly. It held up a mirror to the image of a photo of the pair doing exactly the same thing after Leicester’s Premiership win in 2007.  It served as a reminder of how far Leinster have come in that time, and that success has come the hard way to many of this group.  Cullen and Jennings went to Leicester because Leinster was a poorly-run shambles, and in 2007, when Jenno and Leo were scooping up silverware,  Leinster were beaten by Wasps in a one-sided quarter-final and blew a huge lead to gift the Magners League to Ospreys.  Truly, the recent past can be a foreign country sometimes.

For Leinster it’s a triumph of skill, great players and great coaching.  The ease with which they can integrate different players into the team without diluting their style is remarkable – they play the Leinster way whether it’s the Heineken Cup final or home to Aironi on the thursday before a Six Nations match.  Take a bow, Joe Schmidt.  Nobody doubts that the likes of BOD, Sean O’Brien and Sexton have the talent and the temperament to dominate these sorts of occasions.  But when the regal Sexton comes off with eight minutes to go and his uncapped replacement (Madigan) attacks the gain line and passes to those outside him with such skill as to appear to the manor born, the only conclusion can be that we are in the presence of greatness.