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'When Ringer was being compared to Drico, I remember saying ‘oh God, that poor young fella’'

Keith Earls knows the weight that comes with a 13 jersey for Ireland, but it has become easier to slip new talents into the outside centre channel.

THE POISONED CHALICE element around Ireland’s 13 shirt is not new, but it has changed slightly in recent years.

For the first 14 years of the century, the jersey belonged to Brian O’Driscoll and Brian O’Driscoll alone. When the talismanic captain was absent through injury, nobody was in doubt that replacing BOD was just a matter of keeping the spot warm.

More recently, the difficulty hasn’t so much been in filling big shoes. Jared Payne, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Luke Marshall, Chris Farrell and Keith Earls have all put in excellent performances at outside centre in big matches, but a quick scan of those names will tell you that keeping the next lucky 13 fit and available has been an issue.

Farrell’s training ground injury last week ensures the revolving door will keep swinging when Joe Schmidt names his Grand Slam-chasing team to face Scotland while weighing up the pros and cons of Bundee Aki, Ringrose and Earls at outside centre against Gregor Townsend’s dangerous attack.

Chris Farrell and Garry Ringrose Ringrose and Farrell have a word before the Munster man suffered his injury. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

However, it stands to reason that Schmidt will leave the in-form Connacht centre where he is, the in-form wing out wide and draft the fit-again Ringrose. That move would minimise midfield disruption given Ringrose already has Test experience in the 13 channel.

Still, it’s far from ideal to chop and change the bodies in a defensive system that is under scrutiny. But listening to Earls speak at Carton House yesterday, there is definitely a sense that it is easier, if only mentally, to squeeze into the 13 slot in this current Ireland team.

“Years ago it used to bother (the system), chopping and changing, but I think we’re getting such clarity now,” said the Munster star.

“As we’re getting older, we’re sitting down and we’re chatting to each other more.

Before, I suppose, if I might have done something different to Drico (it was an issue), but now we’re kind of all doing what is best for the team.

“We’re just constantly chatting and constantly learning from each other, and we’re constantly chatting about what would happen if different scenarios pop up. I know Marms (Kieran Marmion) had to cover wing a few times last year, and that’s what we expect from each other.”

Brian O'Driscoll and Keith Earls Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Earls was often the default stand-in 13 during the O’Driscoll era and again for the defining matches of Ireland’s 2015 World Cup. He knows the position, as well as the expectation that comes with it. In Ringrose he sees a player well capable of dealing with both.

“I suppose when Ringer was coming through and he was being compared to Drico, I remember saying ‘oh God, that poor young fella’… I said there’s nothing worse than that, you just need to leave him be himself.

“I had been compared to Drico as well and it was the worst thing ever, because I was trying to be like Drico or trying to be better than Drico.

Keith Earls Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“Ringer is a very quiet fella, he’ll speak when he has to speak, but his work-rate off and on the field is phenomenal. He gets on with his job and he’s a really intelligent fella. He’s still young enough — I think he’s definitely a lot better than I was when I was 23.

“He has it all,” adds Earls, nodding towards Ringrose’s habit of showing off some pre-training football skills with the round ball as well as the oval. The good touch hasn’t been diminished by some extra meat on the Dubliner’s bones.

“He just needs a good run now, he looks a bit bigger now (after) the surgery and stuff. He has been doing a lot of weights with his shoulder…  in my eyes he is a world class centre and he is going to get better and better.”

Garry Ringrose tackled by Eital Bredenkamp Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

One question mark which remains over Ringrose’s readiness to face Scotland is that he has only played 55 minutes (and against the not-s0-sturdy test of the Southern Kings) since returning from injury. The weekend blizzards then denied Ringrose a chance to put further match minutes under his belt as Leinster’s trip to Scarlets was called off. The 23-year-old might find his lungs burning when he returns to Test level for the first time since the summer tour of Japan.

“I was put back into a Heineken Cup game after six months out (in 2010)  I started against London Irish. I remember sucking diesel after three minutes, Dougie Howlett telling me to ‘get up,’” Earls recalled with a grimace. It may well be him in the Howlett role come Saturday.

“It (adrenaline) got me to 60 minutes anyway, I think. Ideally it would have been great to have two or three weeks leading up to the game. ”

“It is a massive challenge if Ringer does step in, (but) he is a different breed as well, he is lean. I think he has unbelievable fitness anyway so, look, if he steps in I don’t think there will be any fear of his fitness.”

“He’s been training the last two weeks with us and it doesn’t look like he’s been out long. He’s still sharp, he’s been causing havoc.

“Look, we’ve been unfortunate to lose Robbie and Chris. They’re two world class players, but we’ve another world class player coming in so we’ve been quite blessed the last couple of seasons with 13s and centres after Drico.

“Before I would have had to step in a few times, or someone else would have had to step in, but we’ve got out-and-out 13s in depth now, which is great.”

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Sean Farrell

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