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'I stopped worrying about rugby after Axel died'

Read an extract from Keith Earls’ book ‘Fight or Flight’.

Keith Earls (file pic).
Keith Earls (file pic).
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from ‘Fight Or Flight’ by Keith Earls.

I stopped worrying about rugby after Axel died

I didn’t stop caring but I stopped beating myself up about it.

The penny dropped with me. I was taking it far too seriously. We were all taking it far too seriously. We had lost our perspective about it.

It shouldn’t have taken a tragedy to teach us that rugby wasn’t the be all and end all.

I saw the toll it took on Axel when he was head coach. I saw the stress he was under. I heard about the abuse he got from so-called supporters.

The passion for rugby in Munster is what made us famous and successful. The downside to all that passion is you can have too much of it. It can make things toxic when results aren’t going well.

Axel’s legendary status as a Munster player didn’t seem to count for much when he was struggling. Some supporters have short memories.

I can remember him all the way back to playing for Shannon against my father and Young Munster. I can remember the first time I ever set eyes on him, he was with Olive in the old Thomond Park. I must’ve been nine or ten at the time.

I was behind the goals looking at him, this massive fella, saying to myself, that’s Anthony Foley.

Then I was introduced to him one day. This is Ger Earls’s young fella. He always had a nod and a word for me after that.

We didn’t hang out much together when I joined Munster, purely because of the generation gap between us, but we’d have a few pints together after a match or at the Christmas party.

Axel was a brilliant tracksuit coach. On the training ground he was class. His rugby intelligence shone through. It was one of the qualities that defined him as a player and it came through on the training ground too. He understood the game at a deep level.

He had incredible knowledge. Working with players, teaching them and educating them in the mechanics of the game, was where he was at his best. The wider managerial job, all the demands on his time, the media duties, the business of professional rugby, all the dealing with contracts and the player market and having to keep forty fellas happy in a squad – it was a massive learning curve. It’s a huge burden of work and responsibility. I’d imagine it takes a lot of getting used to, for any new head coach.

When the club took the executive decision to bring Rassie Erasmus in as director of rugby in the summer of 2016, of course there was a lot of speculation as to how Axel would handle it. In fact he dealt with it unbelievably well. He was still head coach but he was back on the training ground, doing what he loved.

Rassie lifted a lot of the other pressures off him. Over the next few months you could see him coming back to his old self. He was lighter in himself, he was starting to relax and smile again.

We played Leinster at the Aviva in a Pro12 game on October 8 2016, a Saturday. I had to come off with a concussion after 56 minutes.

On the Monday I failed my HIA test so I was ruled out for the European Champions Cup game against Racing 92 the following Sunday. I was in the gym in UL the Friday before that game.

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Axel was walking through the gym and we had a quick word. He said to make sure I got myself right for the game the following weekend and meanwhile they’d try and get the job done in Paris. I wished him luck and he went on his way. That was the last time we ever spoke. They flew out on the Saturday.

On the Sunday Edel and I were over in her mother’s house in Kilmallock. I was keeping an eye on the time, I wanted to be back home to watch the match on television. About an hour and a half before kick-off my phone rang and Conor Murray’s name came up. That was unusual.

You wouldn’t have a player ringing you so close to a game without good reason. So I answered and Murr was like, I’ve something to tell you, terrible news, Axel is dead.

That is not the kind of news you can absorb the second you hear it. I couldn’t process it at all. What d’you mean, what are you saying? He says Axel has been found dead in his bed in the hotel this morning. Rassie has just told us. The game has been cancelled and we’re all over the place, we don’t know what to do.

Poor Murr sounded shellshocked. I was shellshocked. Edel says I was white as a ghost when I told her. Edel immediately thought of Olive and the boys, Tony and Dan. Olive had taken Edel under her wing when we first became part of the Munster set-up. Axel was one of the veterans who had taken me under his wing. We were stunned, devastated.

We drove home from Kilmallock, I rang a few of the younger squad lads who weren’t in Paris either and invited them round to our house. A load of them came over. None of us wanted to be on our own. We just sat around talking about Axel and having a few beers. It wasn’t just us who were shocked. The world of rugby was shocked. Axel was known far and wide throughout the game. Tributes poured in from all over the world.

The next week passed in a blur. The funeral was going to be enormous and we would be playing our part. Everyone was talking about it in Limerick and beyond.

Rassie and the team arrived home from France. We met up for training on the Monday and Tuesday as per normal, although obviously there was nothing normal at all about that week. Our heads were scrambled, we were upside down, we were trying and failing to process all that was happening.

‘Fight Or Flight’ by Keith Earls with Tommy Conlon is published by Reach Sport. More info here.

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