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'He's in the mould of Anthony Foley' - Keith Earls' journey to the top

The Moyross man is now a key part of Munster and Irish rugby and has stayed grounded through it all.

FROM THE VERY beginning, Keith Earls has been surrounded by good rugby people who would become important mentors as his career brought him honours in the schools game and with underage national teams, then Munster, Ireland, and the Lions.

Thomond, St. Nessan’s, St. Munchin’s, Garryowen, Young Munster – Limerick born and Limerick bred.

There were always good rugby people around Earls, but more importantly, just good people.

Keith Earls Earls is in the form of his life. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The Moyross man has gone on to earn the love of Limerick and Ireland, and the things that have driven him were instilled at an early age.

Work hard. Stay humble. Family first.

John Broderick, his coach at St. Munchin’s, a longtime family friend and now a rugby analyst with TG4, has an Irish phrase he uses to sum Earls up.

Fear focal spárálach - a man of few words. It’s a nice way of saying a modest but determined person.”

__________

Many rugby folk will tell you that Ger Earls was the best player not to be capped by Ireland.

To understand Keith, it’s important to know about his father and his family.

A legend in the Limerick rugby scene, Ger was a skillful, athletic and ferocious openside flanker in a Young Munster pack that was feared. He starred for his province too, helping Munster to beat Australia in 1992, and once scored two tries in a final Irish trial.

Though he ended that Ireland trial in the Probables team, having started it in the Possibles, the call-up that many felt he deserved never came.

“Ger was a competitor, such a competitor,” says Mike Prendergast, who played with Earls senior at Young Munster before going on to represent Munster – eventually playing with Keith – Gloucester and Bourgoin, and is now the attack coach for Top 14 side Oyonnax.

“I remember hearing about Ger when I was growing up and next thing I have the privilege of playing with him. Everything I used to hear showed up on the pitch.

“If he was a player in the modern era now, he would have gone on into the pro game. He was very unlucky not to play for Ireland but, for me, the one thing I know that he has instilled in Keith is that competitiveness.

“Everyone spoke about him not being capped but Ger never looked at it as a negative.

“It just drove him on. He had knockbacks from that point of view but he didn’t leave it affect him, he just ploughed on and produced some unbelievable performances for Young Munster and for Munster over the years.

“Keith has had those knockbacks too – getting brought on a Lions tour as a kid and then at times through injury you get knocked back, but Keith kept coming back and coming back with excitement.”

Ger scored a famous try in Young Munster’s 1993 All-Ireland League final win against St. Mary’s, intercepting a pass near his own 10-metre line before showing serious pace to finish – the stride familiar to modern-day fans of Keith.

The athletic ability was obviously passed down, but the mental qualities were arguably more important.

Current Young Munster player/coach Ger Slattery won a Munster Schools Senior Cup with Earls in 2006, as well as featuring for the Ireland U20s with him, and they remain close friends today. Slattery recalls the influence Ger had on Keith from an early age.

“Through secondary school, it was clear to see that Keith had a super relationship with his father,” says Slattery, who has played for Munster.

“There was obviously no better man to go to in terms of rugby advice than his dad – he had a huge reputation around Limerick at the time and still does.

“Everyone knows how good a player he was and most around Limerick would say his dad should have played for Ireland, so the talent was there to see. His dad would still be the one he’d go to for advice, so they’re very close that way.

inpho_00012120 Ger Earls was a brilliant player for Thomond and Young Munster.

“Ger would ensure that Keith wouldn’t get carried away. I’m sure if he did get carried away, Ger would be the first to tell him. By talking to Ger, you’d know he’s a very down-to-earth person, very honest and very humble and you can see that in Keith.”

John Broderick coached Ger for Thomond and at St. Nessan’s College and came to know Keith’s mother, Sandra, who was also from a family who had rugby in their blood.

Keith’s uncles and almost every one of his extended family were rugby people, many of them attached to Thomond RFC. But Ger was the strongest rugby influence, naturally.

“It’s the absolute loyalty that comes from Ger, the most incredible modesty and humility,” says Broderick. “They have a complete and total lack of any kind of arrogance.

“Ger was a superb athlete with an incredible knowledge of the technical side of rugby and Keith had that as well. Ger could push him in that way too – working on his 2-on-1s and maybe telling him that he couldn’t score any more tries after he had got four!

“Ger would push him to create scores for other people – imagine saying that to a nine or 10-year-old.

“There’s an anger in Limerick about Ger not getting that cap and one of the motivations for Ger in steering Keith towards schools rugby was just making sure that he was ticking all the boxes and making sure you’re not giving anyone excuses not to pick you.”

__________

Ger and Sandra decided on Moyross when they settled down together and it was in the well-known Limerick housing estate that Keith grew up, falling in love with sport.

Prendergast recalls Keith being around Young Munster training and even running the tee for the brilliant out-half Aidan O’Halloran during AIL games, always eager to be involved and drinking in every single second of it.

While Ger starred for the Cookies, he had started his rugby with Thomond and Keith was always going to wear the blue of Thomond, their grounds being just a stone’s throw away from the Earls’ home.

Jonathan Slattery tackles Ger Slattery Ger Slattery [right] had some fierce battles with Earls in their youth. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Slattery remembers first coming up against Earls at U9 level. Earls played for Thomond, Slattery for Richmond. Big rivals on the Limerick scene, the derbies were fierce even then.

“Keith stood out even at that age and he was playing openside wing forward at the time, probably just because his dad has played there,” recalls Slattery.

Earls played football and a bit of hurling, while he was a particularly good soccer player, with one period of his youth seeing him lean towards the round ball.

“There was a phase where he thought about going to the soccer, he was sick of too much rugby in his family,” says Broderick. “The odd time he’d be hiding on a Sunday morning and we’d have to find him to play the game! His whole life was rugby.”

But the brief reluctance didn’t last long and Earls fell deeply in love with the game, thriving in Thomond’s underage system.

He started secondary school in St. Munchin’s College, before moving to St. Nessan’s after first year, bringing him closer to home.

Eventually, he moved out to the midfield and with his talent clear for all to see, Broderick and Munchin’s convinced him to return for his final two years of school, with Ger pushing him to get onto the schools rugby ladder that would ensure greater exposure.

A Moyross boy through and through, it was a difficult adaptation for Earls.

“People don’t realise the challenges Keith got over,” says Broderick. “Moving from St. Nessan’s Community College to St. Munchin’s College, just to make sure you were ticking all the rugby boxes, it’s a massive, massive challenge.

“Going up to your first Ireland schools trial up in Blackrock College… it’s ok if you’re in that cultural milieu but then you find yourself in these situations that are incredibly challenging.

Source: James O'Dwyer/YouTube

“When he went to Munchin’s, the Moyross kids told him he was a ‘poshie’ because he was going to Munchin’s – can you imagine? – and the Munchin’s kids are slagging him then because he’s a feckin’ scumbag from Moyross.”

Broderick himself comes from a working-class background in Garryowen and he could empathise with Earls’ initial struggles to “straddle those two worlds.”

But Earls was full of grit and determination, and his talent shone through.

“I remember him scoring a try, I think it was against Crescent in the semi-final of the Cup, and he scored an unbelievable try with his footwork,” says Prendergast.

“That’s when I really looked at Keith and thought ‘this is going to be someone quite special.’”

Slattery captained the Munchin’s team that won the 2006 Cup, with Earls the star turn at outside centre.

The final pitted them against Presentation Brothers College Cork and it was Earls who scored the winning try, finishing off a brilliant break from Eamonn Broderick – John’s son – before Slattery, a hooker, kicked the conversion to ensure a 7-3 win for Munchin’s.

“That whole year he was so effective,” says Slattery. “Himself and Eamonn were in the centres together and the two of them were like grown men at the age of 18, they were like 22 or 23-year-olds physically.

“They had a great partnership and I remember Keith scoring ridiculous tries all year. Funnily enough in that final, he didn’t get many opportunities but when he got that one, he took it. That’s all he ever needed – one chance in a bit of space.

“It used to be a case of ‘get him the ball and leave him do his thing.’”

Keith Earls Earls in Ireland U20s action in 2007. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Earls played for Ireland Schools and was essentially destined for the Munster academy before he had even left Munchin’s, with his path to the very top already being clearly marked out.

Ireland U19s, Ireland U20s – with whom he won a Grand Slam in 2007 under Eric Elwood – Ireland Sevens, Munster A, his first Munster senior cap in 2007 and a stunning full breakthrough season in 2008/09. In November of 2008, he made his senior Ireland debut against Canada, scoring with his first touch of the ball.

His move into the professional set-up with Munster meant he had to leave Thomond behind, the demand being that he played top-level club rugby and leading to his move to Garryowen.

“It broke his heart to leave Thomond, just as it broke his heart to leave St. Nessan’s,” remembers Broderick.

And reflecting on Earls’ journey, the hardship of his early decisions, Broderick still has sheer admiration.

“Keith has spoken about friends of his who are homeless, friends who are in rehab, friends who have died, and now he is the ambassador for sport in Moyross in Limerick.”

_________

Speaking to Earls today, it is clear how comfortable he is in his own skin. He exudes an ease with himself, a quiet confidence that always wasn’t there.

“Keith was always very shy, even in school he was a quiet lad,” says Slattery. “He had his group of mates but he was very quiet. Those who would be close to him would know how much of a character he is – he’s actually a very, very witty person.

“He was never one to try and stand out from the crowd and he always kept his feet on the ground.”

The fact that Earls has never come across as a cocky person, despite his lofty achievements, is one of the reasons he is such a popular player.

Keith Earls with Magners League Trophy Earls lifts the 2011 Magners League trophy with Munster. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The confidence he has discovered in recent years has been hard to come by, and the expectations from the outside and from Earls himself weren’t always helpful.

“I’m sure he put a lot of pressure on himself when he was young,” says Prendergast. “When you play for the Lions at the age of 21, the expectation afterwards is so big. He probably put pressure on himself when he was 22, 23.

“He’s referenced talking to the likes of Paul O’Connell more recently. When Paul hit 30 or 31, he realised that he didn’t have to be in the gym and doing exactly what the 21-year-olds were doing, he was so competitive.

“Paul has this saying that ‘less is better.’ You’ve got to look after yourself and I think Keith is probably implementing that now.”

Family has always been primary for Earls, and that has only been magnified in the last number of years.

He married his long-term partner, Edel, in 2016 and he is clearly madly in love with his two daughters, Ella Maye and Laurie, often bringing them out onto the pitch after Munster games.

“Keith was always a family man, even in school his family was very important to him – his mam, his dad, his little sister,” says Slattery. “Obviously now in later years, his wife Edel and his kids are a huge part of his life.

“I think that’s something people in Limerick admire, that he is such a good family man and you can see how proud he is to be a dad.”

Earls has spoken about how his family life has given him perspective on what is really important in life, reducing the stress he felt around rugby – although not his limiting his professionalism in preparing himself to play.

Prendergast believes we can see that in how Earls is now performing for Munster and Ireland.

Keith Earls celebrates after the game with his daughters Ella May and Laurie 21/1/2018 Earls with his daughters Laurie and Ella Maye. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“With a young family, he’s probably realising that it’s not all about rugby, not to pressurise yourself.

“That can make you enjoy the game more and that’s what he seems to be doing. He just seems to be more free-spirited.”

Broderick has seen the change in Earls too, pointing out that having his own family has helped the now 30-year-old to relax and enjoy his rugby more.

“I think a huge thing was that Keith married Edel, who he’s been going out with since 15 years of age and then the kids arrived,” says Broderick. “He was always the type of guy that every concerned father would want their daughter to meet.

“Family is everything for him, he has those traditional old-school values and that’s the type of father he is – he just wants to spend his time with his kids. There’s massive respect for that.”

Rugby remains important, but family is everything to Earls.

__________

To Limerick people, Keith Earls is a legend. Just like his father before him, the Moyross man has become revered.

Earls has always had a very real side to him, taking on an electrician’s apprenticeship even after he went into the Munster academy, working on building sites as he dreamed of reaching the top of the game.

There have been many Limerick men who have gone on to play for Ireland, but there’s something about Earls that makes him that bit more loved.

“This day and age there are players playing for Munster and Ireland who are not necessarily from Limerick or Munster or even from Ireland now,” says Slattery.

Keith Earls celebrates scoring their first try Earls will win his 64th Irish cap against Italy today. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I think seeing a homegrown guy come through, Limerick people take pride in that. If you go back to his modesty and how humble he is, I think people appreciate that.

“He’s a top professional but he always has time for people and he’s great to chat to, and I think people appreciate that – as well as his performances and putting his body on the line.”

Prendergast sees Earls’ personality as the key reason he is so loved in Limerick.

“He’s a very humble guy, he’s a very honest guy. A lot of people around Limerick know Keith – he’s local. He’s an honest player as well. Then even in his interviews, he’s all about the team. He’s down to earth and gets on with his job, that’s what people like.

“He produces it on the pitch as well. He was surrounded by good people coming through the system – his dad, Aidan O’Halloran, then the likes of Eric Elwood, Declan Kidney, Anthony Foley – very good Munster people. Step by step Keith learned from them.

“People like that about him – he’s a local Limerick lad who has worked hard to get where he is.”

In Broderick’s eyes, Earls is what Limerick and Munster rugby is all about.

Earls has spoken about the effect the death of his friend, team-mate and coach Anthony Foley had on him in 2016, helping him to come to that new perspective on rugby and on life.

Broderick actually sees the spirit of Foley living on in Earls.

“To me, he’s Anthony Foley mark two,” says Broderick. “In the best possible way, in the sense of the fact that I never envisaged Anthony in any other jersey except for the Munster jersey, a Shannon jersey or a Munchin’s jersey.

Keith Earls and Anthony Foley Broderick sees similarities between Earls and Foley. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“In the same way, I’ve never had a picture in my mind of Keith except in a Munster jersey or the blue of Thomond that he has always loved.

“He’s stayed so incredibly grounded, but that’s why he’s Foley to the tee, that loyalty. Outsiders might look at it as the parochialism of Limerick rugby but it’s founded on a great set of values.

“Keith’s family, parents, uncles, everyone is steeped in the traditions of Limerick rugby.

“It’s because he’s in the mould of Anthony Foley, he’s seen as one of their own. He embodies what Munster and Limerick rugby stands for. A lot of it too is coming from his particular background and the area he grew up in.

“To come from that area and represent the Lions and Ireland is actually quite a phenomenal achievement.

“He has never been embarrassed or shy about where he came from, he’s always spoken about it and been very proud of where he came from.”

__________

Joe Schmidt had to be patient before getting Keith Earls into his Ireland team for good. Time and time again, injury denied the Kiwi coach an opportunity to bring Earls into his side.

Whenever Earls has been fit, he has been first-choice and he has rewarded the Ireland boss with consistently excellent performances. He now has 63 caps at the age of 30, though that number would have been vastly greater but for injuries.

“It’s interesting that he’s hugely rated over here in France,” says Prendergast. “The public and players here would speak very highly of Keith, not surprisingly.”

From a professional coaching point of view, Prendergast can see so many things in Earls that he reckons Schmidt likes.

“His basics are so strong,” says the Oyonnax coach. “He’s exceptionally good in the air. His close-in footwork is incredible. People talk about a player having good footwork but it’s easier to have good footwork further away from a player.

Keith Earls Earls is in exceptional form. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

 

“He can use his footwork so close to a player so it allows him to get out of that first five or six yards, which is why he makes so many linebreaks and finds soft shoulders. His ability to read the game is brilliant and his breakdown work is something I know Joe Schmidt has high on his priorities.

“If you watch Keith on the deck when he’s tackled too, as a winger you’ve sometimes got to buy those extra couple of seconds, and he’s so active on the floor with the ball. As a cleaner, you saw last weekend his body height and those basics.

“Joe probably likes those bits and then he can bring that x-factor as well, we’ve seen it so often.”

Earl’s attacking skills have always been the focus, but he’s tough too – more than willing to get stuck into the breakdown. For those who know him, that hard edge is what separates him.

“Keith loved defence or rucking or whatever it was,” says Slattery. “Especially in Munchin’s, out playing on the hill, it wouldn’t have been one for making breaks so they were sessions where everyone had to get stuck in – all the forwards and backs were involved in the rucking sessions.

“Keith was always extremely tough, a good defender, always getting involved – he’d come looking for the ball.”

His growth in confidence, his pure athletic ability, his fine upbringing – all have led Earls to the point of being a key player for Ireland as they go in search of another Six Nations title this year.

When Ireland needed something special last weekend in Paris, Earls was there with his hand up out on the right wing, asking Johnny Sexton to find him with a cross-field kick.

It was a moment of belief, one Earls has admitted he might not have put his hand up for in his youth.

Watching on from home, Broderick saw every bit of Earls’ journey in that moment.

Keith Earls collects a cross field kick from Jonathan Sexton despite the efforts of Virimi Vakatawa Earls rises high to claim Johnny Sexton's cross-field kick against France. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“His maturity, his confidence – he is just so secure and solid in himself,” says Broderick. “He has a solid family behind him, he has a solid extended family around him, support all around him. He is so confident in who he is and where he comes from.

“There were probably times when he was overly critical of himself through the years and not relaxed enough – but that has changed

“Watching him catch that ball, it gets very emotional when you look and know the community he’s come from and to see him on the international stage doing that.

“That is what Limerick rugby is about, giving opportunities to kids like that. Keith is the ambassador for it all.”

- This article was updated on 12 February to indicate that John Broderick coached Ger Earls, rather than played with him, at St. Nessan’s and Thomond. 

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