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Dublin: 18 °C Monday 13 July, 2020
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Hardest ever pre-season has Earls conditioned for Munster fight

The flying back took time out with us this week to chat workload, gameplan and, yes, even his position.

Image: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

AS A PROVINCE, Munster are putting in the hours these days.

Individually, Keith Earls may be “keeping the head down” and working harder than ever, but the squad have been more conspicuous than usual this summer.

The Munster Race was an effort to go out and bring rugby to corners of the province less enamoured with the oval ball than the main hubs.

And if the players appeared to be having more fun than you’d expect from a group of men on community service in atrocious weather, then that’s probably because it was a welcome relief from their ‘hardest pre-season’ to date.

Earls has been around the province long enough judge: “Between weights, doing extra skills and speed, he says, “it’s probably been the busiest pre-season I’ve ever endured.

“You’re nearly running around to different parts of UL and you wouldn’t see anyone [outside the squad] ‘til you’re going out the door.”

“We’ve been doing a lot: mobility sessions to keep our body right, injury prevention, extra ‘core’ and we’re doing skill sessions as units then we’re working in a squad session on speed.  That’s not all in one day, you know, but in pre-season, you might normally get home by one o’clock. Now we’re in there until four.”

If Rob Penney was happy to let the word ‘transition’ hang in the air around the southern province last season, then this is the year when he pushes Munster back towards a high gear.

The brilliant late flourish in the Heineken Cup, which gave Europe two more epic tussles with Munster in classic mode, most definitely put a positive spin on an otherwise disappointing year. This time around, Ronan O’Gara will not be around to provide the brilliant touches which characterise ‘plan A’. This year, Munster will have to stick to Penney’s guns.

©INPHO/Billy Stickland

That gameplan is now one year further on in its development, individual skills are 12 months better. It’s conceivable that the frustrating phases which ended in knock-ons and men being bundled into touch could morph into off-loads and breaks into tracts of space behind the defensive line. A fit and well Keith Earls offering a strike-running option could break the Munster conundrum wide open.

“We’re going into our second year at that gameplan – fellas were getting comfortable in wider spaces where maybe they shouldn’t have been in most of their rugby careers.

“We’re getting comfortable with it, we’re getting a lot more confident with it as a team and maybe as individuals as well because we’re getting used to this pressure.

“I’m looking forward to it again. I enjoy the brand. Now, I know it can be tough at times, but that’s on the player’s onus. We’ve made it look maybe nit as exciting as the gameplan actually is.”

As to what role the 25-year-old will play in Penney’s backline when he finally takes the field in the third weekend of the Pro12; well, he’s more than happy to wait and see.

Last week Earls admitted in an interview with the Irish Independent that he had apologised to Penney for publicly stating that he preferred to play in the centre than the wing.

“I did, I just came out and said I shouldn’t have.”

‘Sick of talking’

For some, it was a refreshing and positive stance on a question he had long become tired of. Others were irritated.

In most other walks of life, you’d credit someone for putting their hand up to do a tougher job when they could easily hang around the fringes and latch onto moments for the highlight reel. Perhaps it’s Earls’ quiet and easy-going demeanour which made him an easy target for criticism when he did just that.

The Limerick man says he didn’t feel that an apology was an absolute necessity, but again he stepped forward and swallowed his pride in an attempt to clear the air for the good of his team.

“I kind of panicked a small bit when they signed two centres,” he admits before attempting to draw a thick line under a long, long saga before starting what he hopes will be a long uninterrupted season.

“To be honest, I’m sick to death of talking about it myself.

“I’ve been doing the same interview for the past six years. I just want to go away and people leave me to play rugby.”

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Sean Farrell

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