Keith Earls has recovered from injury.

Munster man Earls returns as time runs down in bid for World Cup places

The 35-year-old has had an injury-ravaged season but is now back fit.

WITH 98 CAPS to his name as things stand, it remains to be seen if Keith Earls can become Ireland’s ninth centurion.

Remember that Peter Stringer was left on the 98-cap mark and others like Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip finished up only a few appearances short of the 100. 

Earls might have joined the exclusive club this season but for injuries, which forced him to miss the November Tests and the recent Grand Slam success.

The 35-year-old is only now back available after recovering from the hamstring issue that ruled him out of the Six Nations, having been named in Andy Farrell’s initial squad for the championship.

So Earls’ first priority is to make an impact for Munster on their crucial two-game tour of South Africa. Graham Rowntree’s men arrive in Cape Town this afternoon ahead of their games against the Stormers and Sharks. They were torn apart by the latter in their Champions Cup round of 16 clash two weekends ago, so will need to improve drastically.

With the race for URC play-off spots and Champions Cup qualification next season hotter than ever, Earls’ return to fitness is an important boost. That said, he hasn’t always been picked on the wing even when available this season. There’s no doubt that the injury issues have denied him any chance to build up rhythm and form.

Earls has only made four starts for Munster this season, the last of which was back on New Year’s Day against Ulster. Calvin Nash and Shane Daly have been the preferred wing pairing in recent times – they started ahead of Earls in January as he came off the bench against Toulouse – so it remains to be seen where Earls fits in over the next fortnight.

It will also be intriguing to see whether Earls is still a big part of Farrell’s plans with Ireland as they prepare for the World Cup. Ireland go into pre-season camp in mid-June and Earls will almost certainly be in that wider group.

tadhg-beirne-stuart-mccloskey-garry-ringrose-keith-earls-ronan-kelleher-finlay-bealham-cian-predergast-tom-stewart-craig-casey-ross-molony-and-roman-salanoa Earls was with the Ireland squad on the day they claimed the Grand Slam. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Farrell has always been a big fan of Earls the player and Earls the man. There’s great mutual respect and understanding between the Limerick native and the Ireland head coach. Farrell likes what Earls brings to the mix off the pitch, with the latter proving to be a great mentor for less experienced Ireland players. Farrell regards him as a class player too.

It was telling that Earls captained Ireland’s midweek team against the Māori All Blacks last summer and then started the first Test against New Zealand just a few days later after Mack Hansen was ruled out. It was tough going for someone who usually doesn’t do the full week of training as he manages his body, but Earls bagged his 35th Ireland try against the All Blacks.

Earls missed out on the second Test as Hansen made his comeback, but the Munster veteran returned to the matchday 23 for Ireland’s success in the decider, playing 12 minutes off the bench.

Remember too that just before the tour of New Zealand, the IRFU had extended Earls’ central contract until the end of the 2023 World Cup.

So at that stage, one could have ventured with a fair degree of confidence that Earls would be making Ireland’s World Cup squad, but this season has been something of a nightmare for him with all the injury frustration.

He’s now belatedly looking for a chance to show that class is permanent. Earls is the kind of fella whose primary focus will be on helping his beloved Munster to power on into the URC play-offs. There have been no concrete indications from Earls about when he plans to retire or how long he hopes to play on for, but he’ll possibly have viewed this season as one in which he could finally help Munster to end their trophy drought.

We know that sport can be cruel and that’s been the case for Earls this season. But we also know that pictures can change quickly in sport, so it would be wrong to write him off.

keith-earls-dejected-after-the-game Earls and Munster have a huge fortnight ahead. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

He hasn’t faded from Farrell’s thoughts despite his travails. Earls was there at the Aviva Stadium with the wider group of injured and non-selected Ireland players as Farrell’s side claimed the Grand Slam against England last month.

Earls will turn 36 during the World Cup but we’ve seen older players go to World Cups and make an impact before. Johnny Sexton plans to make a major impact on this one at the age of 38.

Another of the issues for Earls is that there’s plenty of competition for places among the Irish outside backs. Names like Larmour, Osborne, Stockdale, and Baloucoune are somewhere on Farrell’s depth charts and possible squad selection documents.  

Still, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Earls’ name in Ireland’s 33-man squad after all.

Munster’s travelling squad to South Africa:

Forwards: Dave Kilcoyne, Josh Wycherley, Jeremy Loughman, Mark Donnelly, Diarmuid Barron, Scott Buckley, Danny Sheahan, Stephen Archer, Keynan Knox; Jean Kleyn, RG Snyman, Fineen Wycherley, Edwin Edogbo, Gavin Coombes, Alex Kendellen, Jack O’Sullivan Jack O’Donoghue, Peter O’Mahony.

Backs: Craig Casey, Conor Murray, Jack Oliver, Joey Carbery, Jack Crowley, Ben Healy, Malakai Fekitoa, Antoine Frisch, Shane Daly, Keith Earls, Calvin Nash, Rory Scannell, Mike Haley. 

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