'Having kids motivates you and you’re trying to play for them'

Keith Earls scored his 17th Ireland try on cap number 50 against Scotland.

WHEN YOU SEE now how important Keith Earls is to Joe Schmidt now, you have to wonder how much better Ireland could have been in their 2014 and 2015 title-winning Six Nations campaigns.

A view of Keith Earls 50th cap jersey Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

The Munster man has been a clear first choice under the Kiwi head coach since getting into his current run of good health and form. Earls has had so many injury travails through the years that a detailed recap is not even necessary. He served his time.

Earls started all five of Ireland’s games at the World Cup, scoring three tries as he broke Brian O’Driscoll’s record for Ireland in the competition, and was also in the XV four times in this Six Nations, missing out on France only due to concussion.

Before this season, Earls had been in Ireland camps under Schmidt but never involved in a match day squad. Injury was the main reason he didn’t pick up a cap under the Kiwi, though the Limerick native did act as 25th man at one point.

I went through a few tough times over the last few years,” said Earls after Ireland’s 35-25 win over Scotland yesterday. “When you’re injured, you spend a lot of time thinking.

“You’re wondering if you’re good enough, if your body is up to it. Look, I put the work in, I sacrificed it. And maybe I did something that I didn’t do in the early days when I took it all for granted a little – I started to look after myself.

“And I suppose having kids motivates you and you’re trying to play for them, and trying to make a living for them.”

The impression of Earls this season has been of a more robust and heavier player. His upper body appears stronger and weightier than ever, but the 28-year-old says he hasn’t added a notable amount of mass this season.

Keith Earls scores a try Earls scored his 17th try for Ireland on Saturday. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“I haven’t put up any weight or anything like that, I probably put on a small bit of lean muscle for the World Cup,” said Earls. “A lot of people thought I got bigger but I just trimmed down a bit.

“I just started looking after myself and I suppose your habits off the pitch, you bring them onto the pitch as well and I must say I’m delighted to be putting it back to back.”

Though concussion against Wales in the opening round was a concern, particularly after being knocked out against the Welsh in the World Cup warm-ups and sustaining another blow to the head while in action for Munster, Earls is thrilled to be on an injury-free run.

He underlines that he is not even thinking about his knees while playing now, whereas before he was nervous about hitting a ruck or side stepping strongly. The doubts and fears have evaporated.

His run of fitness and form has also allowed Earls to reach the 50-cap mark, a milestone he would have achieved far, far earlier in his career had he not been so cursed with injury.

Typically of a modest man, Earls chose not to lead Ireland out at the Aviva Stadium yesterday, as would be traditional for any player hitting the 50-cap point.

“I try to keep it low key, you know,” said Earls. ”Bestie asked me did I want to lead the team out and I just felt it wasn’t about me, it was about one of these games where the win is more important than my 50th.

Keith Earls stand for the national anthem on his 50th cap Schmidt has made Earls an ever-present when fit. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“I might regret it when I retire, but I felt this week it was probably better for the team not to focus on my 50th.”

Fittingly, Earls crossed the whitewash in the first half, benefiting from a mix-up between Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour after a wonderful Johnny Sexton kick.

It was Earls’ first and only try of the championship and he smiles that there was real relief in dotting down.

I thought I was going through a drought in this Six Nations and I got a lucky bounce, I’m delighted,” said the Munster wing. “It’s always nice to get on the scoresheet, I’m just thrilled to finish it on a high.

“I was a small bit worried about not scoring, but it’s all about wins. If the team wins every time and I never score again, I’ll be happy.”

For the good of the cause, always. Ireland are better for having Earls fit and in form.

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