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Dublin: 5°C Wednesday 3 March 2021

'Defensively he's been very, very sound for us' - Schmidt on Keith Earls

The Munster man takes over in the 13 shirt for Sunday’s game against Italy.

Murray Kinsella reports from Guildford

JOE SCHMIDT HAS had to bide his time to finally get an extended period working with Keith Earls.

Long heralded as one of the most talented Irish players of this generation and with numerous performance to back that perception up, the Limerick man’s career has been blighted by serious injuries.

Keith Earls Earls has been superb for Ireland so far at the World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Earls is fit now, he’s sharp, he’s strong and the early signs at this World Cup are that he can be a decisive attacking weapon for Ireland. The 28-year-old has pedigree in this competition of course, but may be even more effective in the coming weeks.

Crucially, his defensive work in the early games of this season has been impressive.

Having started the opening two games for Ireland on the wing, scoring twice against Romania last weekend, Earls moves into the midfield due to Jared Payne’s injury-enforced absence.

Schmidt had other options at 13 in the guise of Darren Cave and Luke Fitzgerald, but Earls won out.

I think we had a number of in-form people and we had to put someone at centre,” said Schmidt this afternoon. “Darren Cave was in form as well, so that certainly was part of the discussion.

“We just felt that Keith in the pre-season match (against Wales) had shown a real sharpness at centre, and it was a way to have Tommy (Bowe) and Dave Kearney on the pitch at the same time.

“I think those three players can all link up and contribute. It makes for a fairly attacking-minded group and at the same time I think Keith made 13 out of 14 tackles in the pre-season game, so defensively he’s been very, very sound for us.

“I know he took a knock in the Welsh game, but it was on the back of a scorching tackle on George North where he put him down very, very quickly. There’s elements of his game that continue to grow and yes, they’ve been visible on the outside (i.e. the wing) but I think they can be visible through the middle of the pitch as well, hopefully.”

Joe Schmidt Schmidt says Earls' form is making decisions for him. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Schmidt had called Earls into a number of Ireland squads since taking over in 2013, but the Munster back suffered injuries on each occasion, denying him the chance to start a senior game under the Kiwi head coach until that Wales game in August.

There was an outing for the Wolfhounds last January, but Schmidt is pleased to be working with a fully-fit Earls.

It’s nice to finally work with him! I certainly gave it a lot of shots,” said Schmidt. “I think he was pretty keen to get started a number of times and just every time he picked up an injury prior to the bracket of games we were about to enter into.

“It’s been great to have him in the group. I think it’s added to the real contest among those back three, middle three players. Between he and Luke Fitzgerald, they’re both very adequate no matter what position they play through those bigger numbers of the team.

“It does just give us a little bit of flexibility in how we mix and match those players, but Keith has made the decisions a little bit difficult in not matching him in because he’s been in really good form.”

Schmidt hopeful Payne will return from foot injury for France clash

Another shot for Bowe and more talking points from Ireland’s XV for Italy

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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