Fight of the Earls

Keith Earls: 'After going on The Late, Late, I thought 'sh**, have I given too much away?’

The Ireland international was initially nervous about speaking about his mental health issues but the public reaction to his heartfelt interview on The Late Late Show has been overwhelmingly positive.


THE MAN IN charge of the PA system watched the 2018 grand slam winners dance, hug and pause occasionally to dust the snowflakes off their cheeks. It was a picture-postcard image that just needed the appropriate words.

Fair to say then that the lyrics to Blur’s Parklife failed to provide them. Then in a moment of inspiration, the PA man thought in emotional rather than meteorological terms. Suddenly Beautiful Day by U2 echoed around an emptying Twickenham and those Ireland supporters who had stayed in their seats joyfully joined in the chorus. Never mind the chill and the grey sky, this was a beautiful day.

Certainly that was how Keith Earls viewed it. Until then, his career had been one of chronic suffering; mental issues biting into his self-esteem, physical injuries causing his body to ache.

Now he was here, in London, at last a grand slam winner, his two daughters, Ella May and Laurie, by his side.

“Daddy, when are you are going to take us onto a pitch with a trophy?” they had often asked.

It was a good question.

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His rugby career began in 2007/08 when Munster were at their peak. They’d end that season as European champions but Earls, an unused sub for their final, didn’t feel part of that victory.

A year later, Ireland would win a grand slam without him. Then came 2014 and 2015, more Six Nations silverware. Again he wasn’t around for those laps of honour.

This time he was. As the team circled the pitch, the two gnarled veterans on the side, Rory Best and Earls, were unable to keep up with the rest of the squad, their progress slowed by the presence of their young children. By the time Earls reunited Ella May and Laurie with their mum in the  stands, the remainder of the squad had returned to the dressing room. It seemed the perfect metaphor, though, because that 2018 championship was one where he looked after the kids in Joe Schmidt’s side.

keith-earls-celebrates-with-his-daughters-ella-may-and-laurie Earls celebrates the grand slam with his daughters. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“I can’t thank Joe enough for what he did for me,” Earls says, his face lighting up as he delivers the sentence.

There is absolute sincerity in his words, the timing interesting. Since Schmidt left the Ireland gig, the underlying theme in so many interviews is that the camp he presided over was never the happiest. That he ruled by fear. “No, he ruled by excellence,” wrote Earls in his newly published book.

“I’m aware of the perception of Joe; I’m also aware how fellers could be scared of him,” Earls says now, via a zoom interview. “But the lads who did their work, they weren’t afraid of Joe. It was in your hands (how Schmidt reacted to you). He demanded excellence, concentration. For sure, there was no time to switch off. But if you were getting things right, he didn’t give out to you. He certainly didn’t pick on people.”

It’s a subtle difference but a big one. It was not personalities that irked Schmidt, just sloppiness. “Joe helped me massively,” says Earls. “He changed my career around.

“I was kind of like his teacher’s pet. I’m not sure if he was kinder to me because he knew the anxiety issues I had, the fact I was bipolar. What I will say is that people need to look at what we achieved under Joe. He transformed Leinster and Irish Rugby.

“Beyond all that, though, there is a really kind man there. A good man. He had a sense of humour and I don’t think people give him enough credit for that. They may not have put in enough effort to get to know Joe Schmidt the person. We used to slag each other; we’d also chat about our families; I’d chat to him about his youngest son. We had a trust in each other. It was a great relationship. We won things together. I’ll always be grateful for that.”

joe-schmidt-talks-to-keith-earls Earls was called Schmidt's 'teacher's pet' Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Earlier this week, Earls won again. But this was a different kind of prize, collected in a different setting to rugby. His autobiography, Fight or Flight, was named Sports Book of the Year. “I’m not saying this shows I have won in life but it is a massive thing in the sense that it shows the journey is going well,” says Earls.

Rewind the clock a bit. It is January 2001. He is a first year student at St Munchin’s College in Limerick. He was doing a bit of messing, kid’s stuff, nothing serious, enough to get him thrown out of class but certainly not enough for another teacher to intervene and make the following prediction. “You will never amount to anything in life.”

Well, it’s fair to say he has. There are the 96 Ireland caps, the 2018 grand slam, the 2009 and 2011 Celtic League wins with Munster, the various Player of the Year awards and now a Book of the Year gong. “What if I had have listened to that teacher? God only knows what I would have ended up as,” says Earls. “This award is right up there with any of the rugby medals.

“But while it is lovely to get it, the most important thing for me has been the messages I’ve received since I made it public (about his condition). People have written letters, saying I’ve helped them. They feel better knowing someone famous has what they have. That’s massive. I have been blown away by the traction it has got.”

More than anything, though, he’s relieved. For years and years, he knew something was wrong but didn’t know what. Then, in 2013, he was formally diagnosed as bipolar and felt a little better. Still, there was a secret to all this private information. It was for him to know, not the world.

That changed a month back. The Late, Late called. Earls recorded the interview in advance and was tucked up in bed before the show went on air. By the time he woke up the next day to turn on his phone, he couldn’t believe what was on the screen. Dozens of texts, each of them supportive, were followed by calls and WhatsApp messages.

“I was like, ‘oh shit, am I after doing the right thing?’ For a while I wondered, ‘have I given too much away for a feller who just wants a quiet life?’”

Over the next few weeks he realised the answer was no. People he knew well reached out.

“I think I’ve got the same thing,” they said.

There was also some slagging. One day, he complained to a team-mate about a bad pass at training.

“Is that Hank speaking to me or Keith?” the player replied.

“That was great, that kind of slagging, that banter is how we handle stuff as Irish people.”

It is only in the last fortnight that he has felt a bit more comfortable with his new public persona. “The positive messages have helped me,” he says. But still, his overriding desire is to just get on with being a rugby player and a father and a husband.

To get that, all he had to do was write a boring book – not the exceptionally honest one he has skilfully put together. He still would have made money and let’s face it, plenty before him have been cynical enough to realise that. Not Earls, though.

“I felt if I was going to do a book, it had to be an honest one. I didn’t want it to be just another sports book that stays unread on the shelf; I wanted it to be different. I felt I had an important story to tell and wanted to help people who had low self-esteem, people who didn’t believe in themselves.

“And for me, it was important to do it while I was still playing because you know how it is, once fellers retire, people don’t really care (about them) because you are no longer on the TV on a Saturday anymore. I thought it would be a lot more powerful to tell the story while I am still an international rugby player. I’m comfortable with that.”

There was a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, when he wasn’t comfortable, either in his own skin or in an Ireland dressing room. His first 50 caps, he says, were a drain, the pressure too much.

Then there was the nonsense that goes with being an international player, the formal dinners, listening to boring stories from alickadoos. As an underage international, he didn’t initially feel comfortable being around people from a different postcode. Quickly, though, he got to see them for what they are; athletes just like him.

“There may have been a perception in my head – right they’re from a different background to me – but there was nothing the lads could do about where they were brought up. It’s their story. It was more me.

keith-earls-gets-tackled-by-ciaran-hearn Debutant Earls didn't feel at ease until his 50th cap. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“Friendships, I made them easily in the Ireland squad because they’re nice fellers. That was never the problem. My issue was that up until 2016, I just didn’t enjoy it the way I should have. But since then, the 46 caps I’ve won since my 50th in 2016, I’ve loved it. I’ve felt comfortable. I’ve only achieved big things since the 50th cap onwards.”

He plans to keep going until the next World Cup, perhaps beyond that. “If they’ll have me,” he jokes. “I am feeling better now than I did in my early 30s when I sorted out the problems I had with my back and my breathing. If I put my mind to it, I could definitely keep going until 2023.”

In any case, he has an itch to scratch. At home is a Heineken Cup medal from 2008. It’s his but he doesn’t feel he owns it. The next one, if there is to be another one, he’ll be proud of. “It is a massive itch. In 2009 we won the league; in 2011 we won it again. My debut was in 2007. We won three things in four years after that and I saw us winning a trophy every second year or so. It hasn’t been that way but we aren’t going to stop; we’ll keep on going because we believe we can get back.”

As he speaks with such conviction, you think back to that teenage kid outside the classroom, all those years ago, a grown man’s words delivered to him with a sneer.

Since then he has become a husband, father, grand slam and Heineken Cup winner, double Celtic League medallist, second highest try scorer in Munster and Irish rugby history and now Eason Sports Book of the Year winner.

“You’ll never amount to anything, Keith Earls.”

He took his time answering back. It was worth the wait.

* Fight or Flight: my life, my choices by Keith Earls written in conjunction with Tommy Conlon and published by Reach Sport is available in all good book shops.
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