Going home to be a father keeps All Black challenge in perspective for Earls

The 31-year-old is set to face New Zealand for the fifth time on Saturday.

KEITH EARLS HAS reached a point in his career when rugby is rugby. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s not the be-all and end-all, and realising that has helped the Munster winger produce the best form of his career in recent seasons. 

Perspective. It changes everything.

Keith Earls Earls pictured at Carton House earlier. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

That’s not to say it doesn’t mean as much, or he’s not invested in it as much, but finding the balance between being able to switch on and then switch off has served Earls well during the back-end of his career.

It can be intense inside the Carton House bubble, particularly in a week of this magnitude, when every waking moment is spent thinking about rugby, about ensuring every detail of preparation is meticulously executed.

It’s the way it has to be, but the importance of escaping, of finding an outlet, is heightened. 

After two days of training and team meetings at their Kildare base, Joe Schmidt’s squad split their separate ways this evening for 24 hours of down time at home before reconvening on Wednesday night, for the start of the serious business.

For every player, that time away from camp and away from the consuming talk of the All Blacks will be spent differently. For the younger members of the squad, it could be spent playing Playstation, catching up with friends or spending time with girlfriends. For others, it means a return to family life. To being a husband and a father. 

“I’m going to see my kids later on, they’ll get me away from it,” Earls says.

I certainly don’t like thinking about the game, I like looking at the game and training when I’m within my training hours but outside that, I’m not even thinking about Saturday.

“I’m in training now and we finish up and we get to go home and I enjoy going home to be a father and a husband as well. That’s an exciting part of my week as well.”

Upon his return from Limerick tomorrow evening, Earls will reset the focus again. He’ll switch back on, ensuring that he is fixed on the task in hand and that his body and mind are ready to face the ultimate test.

For the 31-year-old, Saturday will be a first meeting with New Zealand since 2012 after he was suspended for the breaking of the hoodoo in Chicago, and fell out of the selection picture for the rematch two weeks later in Dublin.

Andrew Trimble and Simon Zebo were Schmidt’s wingers on those occasions.

“Yeah, it’s been a while since I played against the All Blacks,” Earls says. “2012 was the last time. I’ve only played against them four times and, look, it’s going to be a massive challenge against the number one ranked team in the world and it will be a good chance to test myself.”

Keith Earls Earls is in line to face New Zealand for the fifth time this weekend. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Earls’ last appearance against the All Blacks does not evoke happy memories, as Ireland were hammered 60-0 in Hamilton as the hosts closed out a Test series whitewash of Declan Kidney’s side.

It was a sobering experience for Ireland but also for Earls on a personal level as he remembers being run over by Hosea Gear in the build-up to one of New Zealand’s nine tries that day.

“That was my last game against them, so it’s in the back of my head. Personally I’ve grown a lot since then and I’m looking forward to it. Hopefully I’ll be selected and get a nice cut off New Zealand this weekend.”

While Earls is relishing the chance to test himself against the back-to-back world champions again, it’s not something he’s getting carried away with. It’s just another game in his world.

“I don’t get too excited about who we play against anymore, it’s about me getting ready and getting my body ready and enjoying it,” he explains.

“The fact it’s New Zealand, it’s an important game, we’re at home. It’s number one versus number two in the rankings and I suppose there’s that bit of edge to it. 

But I don’t like building certain games up. Every game I try to prepare myself and show respect to any team we play against. Just because it’s the All Blacks I’m not going to change much.

If, as expected, Earls starts for his 72nd cap at the weekend, he will be part of a much-changed backline from that game in Chicago, with only Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney expected to be retained from two Novembers ago.

With Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw injured, and Trimble and Jared Payne since retired and Simon Zebo now one of the flock of wild geese, Schmidt’s backline will have a very different look to it. 

“All the focus is going to be on them but we need to focus on ourselves,” Earls admits.

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“We’ve troubled the All Blacks ourselves in the past in the Chicago game and we’ve always quite close to them when we have performed. We’ve got to back ourselves as well and back the talent that we have.

Keith Earls The winger speaking to media at Carton House. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“You go back and look at the videos of how you broke them down and how they broke us down. We’ve been looking at that and we looked at the game that was played in the Aviva as well [in 2016]. Look, that was two years ago and a lot of the lads who played in that game [Chicago] aren’t playing here now and it’s up to this group to try and get a result against them at home.

“It’s something we’ve never done, beat New Zealand at home. That would be a nice one to tick off but it’s a massive challenge. They’re incredibly dangerous. 

“They’re one of those teams where if you blink for one second, you’ll be behind your own post a couple of times. You just have a look at some of their outside backs and their records, you know it’s phenomenal and look it’s a massive challenge for us.”

As Schmidt’s side disperse this evening, they do so with the bulk of the preparatory work in the bank, so now that the players have been briefed on the game plan, does Earls believe Ireland will topple the All Blacks if they execute it?

“Fingers crossed, we’ll see on Saturday,” he smiles.

He won’t think about it too much during the car journey home to Limerick.  

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