KEITH EARLS HAS never been comfortable with individual plaudits but after a remarkable season with Munster and Ireland, last night saw him named Zurich Players’ Player of the Year at the Rugby Players Ireland awards in Dublin.
Even with the praise of his fellow professionals directed Earls’ way, the 30-year-old was keen to stress that the other three players who had been on the shortlist – Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong and Conor Murray – are at the very top of their game.
“The team is the ultimate but the year that’s in it, with the success in Ireland this year, it’s great to be recognised by your fellow players,” said Earls.
“In my eyes, Conor, Johnny and Tadhg are probably the three best players, genuinely, in the world in their position. It’s brilliant, but we have a big weekend against Leinster this weekend and that’s the one we want.”
Earls sat down at the start of this season to write down his goals and winning a medal with Ireland for the first time was chief among them.
He played a huge part in delivering the Grand Slam that Ireland set out to win when they gathered for their collective goal-setting meeting at their pre-Six Nations training camp in Spain.
“In terms of international rugby, it’s been a great season for me personally, getting my first medal in international rugby with the Grand Slam and that’s something that isn’t easy to achieve,” said Earls.
On the provincial front, Earls was part of the major disappointment for Munster in the Champions Cup semi-finals against Racing 92 in Bordeaux.
They failed to fire a shot that day until the game was essentially over, but this weekend’s Pro14 semi-final against Leinster provides the province with another opportunity to drive towards trophy glory.
The fact that Munster travel to face the European champions on Saturday at the RDS makes the task look all the more demanding.
“I had a good friend playing for Racing and I had good friends playing for Leinster,” said Earls of watching last weekend’s Champions Cup final.
“They [Leinster] are setting the standard in world rugby, it’s not just European rugby, they’re setting the standard. You’d be unbelievably jealous of them but it’s really impressive what they’ve achieved.
“You don’t need extra motivation for Munster and Leinster but we’re the first ones to get a crack at the European champions so we’re really going to test ourselves and hopefully we can turn them over.”
Munster’s hunger for a trophy never diminishes, nor does the expectation around the province from the outside, but it would be a serious achievement to overthrow Leinster this weekend and secure the Pro14 title a week later at the Aviva against one of Scarlets or Glasgow.
It would be an even more impressive task given that head coach Johann van Graan only came onboard a few months ago.
“We always feel we’re capable of winning a trophy,” said Earls. “Johann came in in November and it has been another season of disruptions.
“Obviously, there’s nothing you can do about Axel’s passing but with Rassie [Erasmus] and Jacques [Nienaber] leaving this year it was a disruption.
“We looked after it ourselves as players and we haven’t seen much of Johann yet, he’s been feeding us in dribs and drabs I think. We will really see him in pre-season and you’ll see van Graan’s team next year.
“But he’s been feeding us in dribs and drabs on top of Jerry [Flannery] and Felix [Jones]‘s stuff and hopefully he will get us over the line for two more games.”
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