Keith Earls with his daughters Ella-May, Laurie and Emie. Dan Sheridan/INPHO
The Man

'In my head it was, 'Jesus, will he put me on? This could be very embarrassing after everything''

Video tributes, universal adulation, and a head-over-heels score against England to crown what Keith Earls jokingly describes as ‘the worst week of my life.’

HALF AN HOUR after he bestowed upon the Irish rugby public one of the great Aviva Stadium moments in the shape of a head-over-heels finish in the left-hand corner, Keith Earls draws a couple of sympathetic tuts from journalists assembled in the bowels of the stadium.

Ireland’s ninth ever centurion is asked if he has given any thought to pursuing the all-time try-scoring record of Brian O’Driscoll, whom he trails by 10 tries in 33 fewer caps, Earls replies firmly: “No.”

Softening slightly, the Munster wing continues: “Who knows? It could be my last one. You don’t know.”

It’s an admission which tugs on the heart strings of everybody in the media room, a stark reminder from Earls that there will be no room for such gooey sentiment when Andy Farrell whittles his travelling party down to 33 this day next week.

“I’ll tell ya one thing: I’d hate to be the coach that’s trying to pick the 33-man squad,” Earls says. “It’s going to be tough.”

Still, Earls at 35 has lived enough life to understand the need to embrace career moments like Saturday’s within their own context — and his 36th Ireland try was the perfect way to both mark a century of caps and to persuade the national-team coach that he still has the wheels to warrant a few more.

Well, almost perfect…

“It’s amazing how the moment can make you do things you don’t like doing”, Earls smiles, referring to the style points that he sprinkled on top of the finish, “but yeah, I really enjoyed it. It was a good team try and a good pass from Bundee.

“I was saying to the lads it was probably the worst week of my life with all of the attention with the hundredth cap, but nah, I’m delighted. Everything worked out perfect and you couldn’t have a better bunch of lads to do it with.”

keith-earls-celebrates-scoring-a-try Keith Earls celebrates his try. Evan Treacy / INPHO Evan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Mind you, Earls describes spending the first 57 minutes on the bench as “hell” — and even more agonising than would be typical in that he found himself thinking, “‘Jesus, will he put me on? This could be very embarrassing after everything…’”

His introduction was never in doubt, of course, as had been made demonstrably clear earlier in the week.

Ireland invited Earls’ parents, his sister, his wife and his three daughters into camp on Thursday. His wife, Edel, compiled a 10-minute video of well-wishers which, off the top of Earls’ head, included Declan Kidney, Joe Schmidt, Brian O’Driscoll, Rory Scannell, Simon Zebo and Andrew Conway. “She caught me off-guard with that one,” Earls smiles.

“I was emotional. Very emotional. I think it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, trying to keep the tears out of my eyes on Thursday around the lads, but I think I managed to do it, so it was grand.”

On Friday, meanwhile, Peter O’Mahony found himself losing a similar battle as he gushed about his longtime Munster and Ireland teammate in a video posted to the IRFU’s social media channels.

“We usually don’t open up about each other like that,” Earls says. “It was a rare thing to see the lads get emotional speaking about me, something you’d take for granted.”

Then, of course, came the beautiful homage written by Mack Hansen — with a naught blade.

“He actually came into the team room with just his hair dyed green,” Earls explains, visibly still perplexed.

And then he got this idea of… He wanted to cut a shamrock into the side of his head, but it went a bit pear-shaped. So then he came up with, ‘Let’s get ‘KE 100′ into the back of my head.’ I was sitting in the team room and I was like, ‘I want no part of this.’ I walked away… Craig sent me a picture — and what a horrendous job they’d done on it.

mack-hansen Hansen's Earls tribute. Tom Maher / INPHO Tom Maher / INPHO / INPHO

The true highlights came on Saturday.

Earls — accompanied by his daughters Ella-May, Laurie and Emie — led Ireland out to rapturous acclaim at the Aviva. Ella-May in particular, who fell ill when she was born in 2012 and has grown up with a serious respiratory lung condition, is old enough that she will always remember the day she discovered the extent of her dad’s legend.

“I never did it for my 50th because we had a big match to play against Scotland in the Six Nations,” says Earls. “I suppose I kind of regretted it a small bit after that game.

“[This time around], Faz was just like, ‘This isn’t a normal week. You just have to go out.’ It was a special, special moment to get to go out with my three girls.”

keith-earls-takes-to-the-field-with-his-daughters-ahead-of-the-game Earls after walking out to the pitch with his daughters. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

It was also especially meaningful for Ireland’s ninth ever centurion to have been presented with his hundredth cap by Farrell specifically. Earls explains: “We’re big rugby league fans in our house; my father always watched rugby league and Faz was always mentioned in our house and I suppose, with what he’s done, and with the respect I have for him as a man… I suppose, how relaxed he’s made our environment, people being themselves and what he’s done for us. That was a special moment.”

There’s scope for a few more. All of that will be determined when Farrell makes his final call on Ireland’s World Cup squad next Monday.

On Brian O’Driscoll’s all-time try-scoring record for Ireland, Earls adds with a smile: “Maybe if I get within four or five, I’ll start thinking about it.”

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