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'It’s a lot more chilled, we're barely in the classroom': Earls enjoying freedom under Farrell

The tension of the World Cup and Japan has, for now at least, dissipated.

KEITH EARLS has played just 35 minutes, out of position, over Ireland’s two Six Nations outings. Yet that is not why he feels like he is shouldering a reduced and less onerous workload.

Even the small handful of times the word ‘fun’ has popped up in conversation with Ireland players over the past fortnight has been enough to raise eyebrows. For the simple reason that it’s new.

Joe Schmidt was famous for his ‘attention to detail’, a quality well worth having in a coach, but not one that easily goes hand-in-hand with fun, craic or freedom of expression.

We couldn’t have been sure that Andy Farrell’s straightforward and aggressive approach to setting a defensive stall would lend itself to a squad full of smiling faces either, but – at least after two wins – players are revelling in a little new-found freedom.

keith-earls-and-peter-omahony-celebrate-after-the-game Earls and O'Mahony celebrate the win over Wales. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“It’s been a lot more chilled,” said Keith Earls after training in Cork on Thursday.

“We’re barely in the classroom as well. We see our classroom as being on the field. Faz brings down a TV to the side of the field at the HPC (high performance centre) and we’ll look at a play and then we’ll go out and rep it. It’s just coaches are different.”

Doctors differ, patients die. A strict man at the top hardly spelled disaster for Ireland as they won three Six Nations from 2014 to 2019, but times do change and a player’s mileage will vary on how they respond to a single approach.

Earls is around the game long enough to have seen another team go through the transition. He was a part of the Munster side who won the Heineken Cup in 2008, the last year of dominance from a hardy and grizzled outfit. 

Such strong characters are impossible to simply replace or rehash. Teams must evolve rather than emulate.

“There were times when we scared to laugh. If you were laughing you weren’t switched on or you weren’t concentrating or you weren’t being professional,” the Limerick man says of the Munster old school. 

The line of comparison being drawn to Ireland by his inquisitors is clear. And there is a stark difference to how Earls describes the build-up to the win over Wales and how Rory Best remembers the lead-up to the World Cup quarter-final.

keith-earls-dejected-after-the-game Earls and Iain Henderson react to defeat to Japan. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“The morning of the New Zealand game, whatever happened, the coaches wanted a huddle and to go over some plays. I think there was a little worry at that stage that we hadn’t emphasised something enough,” the former captain said in December.

There was a similar story before the trouncing against England in August. Ben Youngs’ danger was talked up, to no constructive end.

Fast forward back to 2020 and Earls notes:

“Last week before the game, we did the Captain’s Run, then we didn’t meet again until we were getting on the bus going to the game.

“Usually you’d have a couple of meetings beforehand and you might have a meeting at 10 in the morning and the anxiety starts coming in from there.

“Whereas it’s completely chilled. We are trying to enjoy ourselves, but once you walk out in the four lines you have to be switched on. It’s being able to switch on for the hour or so rather than wasting energy all morning or two days or a day out, wasting energy on thinking about plays or stuff like that.”

He adds: “Andy backs our qualities as well to be able to deliver what he shows us.

“Look, it’s a new philosophy and it’s completely different from the way we’ve been playing and it’s great. We’re only two games into it and we’re two from two.”

keith-earls Earls training in Cork this week. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Struggling with what Andrew Conway described as ‘a grumpy knee’ in the build-up to the Championship, Earls made sure to deliver a brilliant blend of fun and fire when he was called off the bench early in the second half against Wales. Robbie Henshaw failed his HIA and left Earls in the centre as the match entered the melting pot.

It was like turning back the clock in a way, Earls having been earmarked as a potential replacement for Brian O’Driscoll at 13 way back when. The shadow cast by the record try-scorer has faded though, and Earls certainly appeared to enjoy linking with Jordan Larmour, landing notable passes to the fullback both in the Welsh 22 and on halfway.

The Munster star points to his coaches to pass on credit when he is commended for his passing, Mike Catt, Steven Larkham and Joe Schmidt.

“Under Joe, he had us wingers trying to pass quite a bit. Stephen Larkham is huge on it as well, about getting quick hands and passing under pressure. Catty’s massive on it as well, so it’s something that we’ve been doing the last couple of years and months, but particularly the last couple of weeks under Stephen and Catty.”

“I think in the last couple of years I’ve tried to be well rounded in my game, especially if you’re trying to cover 13 – passing is massive. Defending is massive.

I suppose it’s about trying to be the best rugby player you can be, but not lose sight of what you’re very good at as well. So, there’s a balance.”

A balance Earls will strike if he can keep that temperamental knee relatively happy.

“I won’t say it’s an ideal situation but a 30-minute cameo every now and then is probably a good way to ease back into it, but yeah they’re feeling 100% now.

“It was my first run out in a while and it was good to get one back over Wales and in the manner we did as well. 

“We played some exciting rugby but what’s brilliant is there’s plenty more to come.”

Maintaining excitement and fun will be all the easier if they can sustain their current form too.

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Sean Farrell

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