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Dublin: 6 °C Saturday 15 December, 2018

'In my eyes right now, he ticks every box': Earls backs Stockdale to continue flying form

Just infield meanwhile, the diligent Bundee Aki has been settling right in at Carton House.

KEITH EARLS WAS responsible for more than his fair share of highlights during Ireland’s summer tour, but one assist in particular stood out.

It was Earls’ line-break and terrific whipped pass to the left wing that found the galloping debutant Jacob Stockdale with eyes only for the try-line in New Jersey.

Rather than come back from that tour and struggle with a difficult second season or the extra attention that comes to an international starlet, Stockdale stormed into this campaign and his record of scoring on every starting appearance was only halted at the sixth attempt when Leinster went to Belfast 10 days ago.

The 21-year-old remains one of the freshest faces around Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad this week as they prepare for the first Test of the new season, but Earls’ summer experience with the Ulster star has left an impression.

“He’s a phenomenal talent. From the moment I saw him and trained with him, I knew he had something special,” Earls said at Carton House yesterday.

He’s been playing unbelievably for Ulster this year, he’s massive, he’s fast, he’s an incredible finisher and he’s so strong too, he ticks all the boxes.

“He’ll make mistakes as he gets older, and it will start getting difficult when teams start figuring him out and what he’s about, but in my eyes right now, he ticks every box.”

Form-wise, reuniting Earls and Stockdale in the back three against South Africa would seem to tick every box too. However, during two weeks prep, the importance of form may well fade for Schmidt and experience will surely put Dave Kearney in the Kiwi’s reckoning alongside the lone specialist fullback in the squad, Rob Kearney.

Keith Earls Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

There is no competing with Conor Murray or Jonathan Sexton at half-back, but who supplies Earls and the back three from midfield is a further point to ponder for Schmidt when he finalises the team in his mind today. Robbie Henshaw will be an automatic choice, but alongside him will be either the once-capped Stuart McCloskey or an Chris Farrell or Bundee Aki.

Henshaw’s history alongside the Connacht stalwart, though 18 months on ice, makes Aki the partner offering the most familiarity and cohesiveness. The 27-year-old certainly sounds like he has hasn’t wasting time adapting to life in Ireland camp, according to Earls.

“He’s been himself, which is great, there’s no dancing or anything out of him yet,” jokes the Limerick man, who suddenly looks about 10 kilos too light to be a centre as Henshaw, Aki, McCloskey and Farrell vie to squeeze into two places.

Keith Earls Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“He’s keeping the head down. He’s putting in a lot of hard work… he’s on the computers. He’s doing everything he can to get up to speed. It’s great having him around.”

‘He’s an experienced player, he’s won Super Rugby with the Chiefs, he’s won a trophy with Connacht, he’s been playing unbelievably, he was (Pro12 2016) player of the year in our league last year, and he’s well enough experienced, so hopefully he’ll get his shot.

“There’s a lot of competition, it’s only good for us.”

Keith Earls tackled by Peter Robb and Bundee Aki Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

That competition, and as Earls describes, a willingness from all sides to work means there are alternatives to reforging the Henshaw-Aki partnership. McCloskey’s sole cap in Twickenham was alongside Henshaw, while Chris Farrell also has the stature and skill-set that may appeal to Schmidt.

“It is something you do during the week at training. If you haven’t played with a fella or trained with a fella, you grab him for a cup of coffee or you sit down and you chat and you let him know what way you like to talk on the field and you find out what kind of talk he likes to hear and then you just get the feel of it at training.”

There’s little to rival Test experience, but the first taste has to come sometime.

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‘One of the older fellas,’ but Test match buzz still takes hold of Keith Earls

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