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Dublin: 9 °C Thursday 24 October, 2019

Back from injury, but the pain of semi-final defeat runs deep for Keith Earls

‘It was hard to believe standing under the sticks after the third try… all you can do is keep battling on.’

A COMMITMENT IS a commitment, and Keith Earls is a man of his word.

So despite a gut-wrenching experience in sweltering Bordeaux yesterday, Earls honoured his agreement to speak for Rugby Players Ireland in Dublin this morning.

Keith Earls and Henry Chavancy Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Just 18 hours after the full-time whistle came to confirm a European exit that looked inevitable midway through the first-half, Earls had already raked over ashes of his latest European tilt three times in separate interviews.

“Yeah, I haven’t seen my kids yet. So when I go home later on to the wife and kids it will probably be a lot easier,” says the wing.

Earls is hurting bad. He has started all six semi-final losses since Munster last appeared and won the 2008 final and defeat at the penultimate hurdle doesn’t get any easier.

The Limerick man brings up the not-so-magic number in his first sentence. Nobody in Munster is hiding away from their continued stumble when the competition is whittled down to the final four, but so soon after the loss, it’s extremely difficult to pin-point why it’s happening.

The flight home from Bordeaux was a solemn trip.

Keith Earls with Marc Andreu Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“No one was talking. It was all heads down watching iPads. Some fellas were looking at the game.  There were a lot of fellas devastated, y’know, there were a lot of us there… it was my sixth European semi-final; Pete, Billy, Murr, Keats, they’ve been involved in a few too.

“That’s the thing, a lot of us have been involved in a few. We’re not that inexperienced as a squad and we just can’t put our finger on it, what’s going wrong.”

The messages being spread during all too frequent gatherings behind the post were short, sharp and obvious missives that were, by a distance, easier said than done.

“We just needed to stop their momentum which is hard to do when a lot of them have two or three stone on us. They were getting quick ball and we weren’t getting time to reset defensively as good as we would have liked. It was just about stopping their momentum and trying to get into our own gameplan which we were off with a bit as well.”

It was hard to believe standing under the sticks after the third try, you know, that it was happening again. But all you can do is keep battling on. I think only losing by five points, if we had another play even we would have caught them.”

“We got back into it and were doing it the hard way. I don’t want to make it out to be a massive crisis or anything like that. It’s just that you’re playing well all year and then you get to the last four… it’s about your mindset, how you change that?”

Those late flourishes are among the positives Munster can take from a 27-22 loss that felt nothing like a five-point game. For Earls, there must be a personal silver lining in that he was present with his boots on, fit again and playing through all 80 minutes.

Keith Earls celebrates winning with his daughters Ella May and Laurie Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Like fire and ice, yesterday’s experience for Earls was the ultimate reversal in fortunes compared to his last time on the field. In mid-March, he celebrated in freezing conditions as Ireland sealed a Grand Slam win while he got set to rehab his knee ligament injury.

Five weeks later, a week sooner than planned, Earls was fit but feeling a crushing low.

Like Robbie Henshaw in Leinster, the speedy return can be attributed to an intense professional work ethic from Earls. Recovery lead-times are getting trimmed by medical teams with an ever-growing wealth of knowledge and the modern player is asked to approach the off-field workload with the same focus as they do the on-field. The combination means what might have been season-ending injuries quite recently, can in some cases be whittled down to matters of weeks.

“Years ago it would have been: ‘I’m injured, now I can relax.’ But I think now when you get injured we’re more busy.

“You’re trying everything go get back. It’s important the first two weeks that you’ve been injured to look after yourself. That can knock a week off the time you’re supposed to be out.

“I think that’s what happened to me: I had a week in Dubai after the Six Nations with my family and I was running the following week, straight-line, the knee felt good and I’ll keep it strapped for the rest of the season as a precaution. Hopefully, I can get back into good form.”

Donnacha Ryan and Keith Earls Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Undoubtedly, Donnacha Ryan expressed a similar hope for his old friend when the pair met on the Stade Chaban Delmas turf after the smoke of battle had cleared.

The Tipperary man was given a heartfelt reception by the travelling Munster fans he worked so hard to upset and was tremendously magnanimous after knocking out a team he would have loved to continue playing with.

Yeah, he’s a close friend, Donnacha. He’s a Munster man. You could see he was nearly apologising, it was like he was hurt.

“He’s a man on his own mission and we had good chats in the dressing room afterwards and I’m delighted for him as an individual but it’s a tough one for us to swallow.”

“He was massive. Obviously he knows us inside out and he knows what gets us going, possibly our weaknesses (too). Especially for line-out, himself and Billy had massive mind-games leading up to it.

“Donnacha was massive when he was with us, leading our line-out. I think if Racing didn’t have Donnacha Ryan in their line-out, CJ Stander scores in the first-half with that move through the middle of the line-out. His work-rate, his knowledge and the little cues he’d pick up on, he got around and hit CJ.”

Keith Earls Earls was in Dublin to announce he nominees for the 2018 Zurich Players’ Player of the Year Award, which will be presented on 16 May at the Clayton Hotel in Ballsbridge. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

With a little luck Earls could have four games still to play in a Munster jersey this season, and silverware is still on the table. The embrace from Ryan didn’t ease the latest stinging defeat, that will last for a while. But an injection of perspective and a few encouraging arms round shoulders will help this Munster side channel their annoyance into another trophy chase.

“I think it was Len Dineen (Limerick Live95 reporter) said to Johann yesterday: ‘no one’s dead.’

“That’s my thing, putting everything in perspective, but still when you care about something so much and you can’t get there, it’s frustrating.”

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Sean Farrell

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