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.

The Penney Drops *cringe*

So, it’s official. To our surprise, Axel hasn’t got the job, but will continue to earn his coaching spurs under Rob Penney for the next 2 years, at which point he will presumably get the big gig.

This makes Connacht the only Irish province that will not be coached by someone dismissed as an unheralded Kiwi next season – we can only hope Penney and Anscombe emulate Joe Schimdt’s considerable achievements at Leinster.

The first way to view Penney is as a sacrificial lamb who will get to soak up all the ire of the fans by continuing Ludd’s work of the last 18 months and retiring the Liginds one by one and then buggering off to let Axel take over once the newbies have been transitioned in. In the 2 years of his contract, Penney will be forced to retire Horan, Stakhanov, Leamy … and Radge. The first 3 should be easy, but O’Gara is unlikely to go quietly – apart from anything else, he is still head and shoulders above Ian Keatley or anyone else who is available for Munster.

However, we hope and suspect that his work at the Crusaders Academy may have been an important factor – the Munster academy is perceived as being behind Leinster and Ulster right now, and even Connacht have had more under-20 representatives in recent years. – some of the players who have come through from the Academy to the Super Rugby team in Penney’s time there are Owen Franks, the Whitelocks, Matt Todd, Kieran Read, Tyler Bleyendaal and Sean Maitland.

Or maybe it’s because he coached Peter Borlase in the 2009 Air NZ Cup (now ITM Cup) – if Munster can actually get the Kiwi Irishman on the pitch and playing it would save a hell of a lot of sweat once BJ gets kicked out.

Penney will be picking the rest of his coaching staff in the weeks to come. We note with interest that Brian Ashton is now a free man…..

Trawling the World

Last week Ronan O’Gara urged Munster to trawl the world for the best possible head coach.  The search has turned up two names: ITM Cup side Canterbury ‘s head coach Rob Penney and Counties Manakau head coach Tana Umaga.  Some trawl.  Penney was interviewed yesterday, and Umaga rolls into town today.  Following Ulster’s appointment of Mark Anscombe, the Irish provinces certainly appear to be putting a lot of stock in the ITM Cup, which is the second tier of New Zealand rugby.

A little while ago, we ventured that Munster might find it difficult to recruit a top name, given the timeframe involved, Foley’s obvious stature as head coach in waiting, and the difficult transitional job involved (notwithstanding the obvious lure of a great club with a fine tradition and a fanatical, if expectant fanbase).  This appears to have come to pass.

Given the only argument being held against Foley is his lack of experience, Tana Umaga would be a bizarre appointment.  He was a failure at Toulon, and has nothing else on his CV to recommend him.  Even as a backs-coach appointment to work in tandem with Foley, they would look an oddly fresh-faced team.  Rob Penney is predominantly a forwards coach, so he would appear to dovetail poorly with Foley.

The decision not to interview Eddie O’Sullivan (backs coach par excellence) looks strange.  Another backs-oriented old hand like Brian Ashton, who has no head coach ambitions and an excellent record as a No.2, is another who would fit well with Foley, but doesn’t seem to have been in the frame.

Unless the Munster Branch have a trick up their sleeves that they’re not telling us about, the job is obviously Foley’s, and the recruiting process has all the hallmarks of a whitewash.