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Earls a man for the big occasion and can extend Irish record at this World Cup

The Limerick man could soon be rubbing shoulders with David Campese and Brian Lima on the list of all-time top try-scorers.

THERE ARE CERTAIN athletes who have earned a reputation for always delivering on the biggest occasions.

Whether it’s Seamus Callanan’s reliability in front of goal for the Tipperary hurlers this summer, Cristiano Ronaldo’s remarkable goal return in the knock-out stages of the Champions League, or Usain Bolt’s record at the Olympics, some people simply always produce on the biggest stage.

For the Ireland rugby team, Keith Earls falls into the bracket.  

keith-earls-scores-a-try Earls celebrates a try when Ireland beat France this year. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The Munster wing enters his third World Cup as Ireland’s highest ever try-scorer in the tournament, with a superb record of eight tries in 10 World Cup appearances.

In fact, his return at World Cups is actually far more prolific than his usual strike rate. 

Since making his international debut in 2008, Earls has 30 tries to his name during 78 caps for Ireland. Looking at those numbers outside of World Cups, Earls has scored 22 tries in 68 games. That means that at World Cups, Earls has scored 27% of his international tries at a tournament which accounts for just 13% of his Ireland caps.

It is easy to understand why there is such concern surrounding the knee injury Earls sustained in the final warm-up game against Wales earlier this month. This is a player who thrives on rugby’s biggest stage.

Earls’ love affair with the World Cup began in New Zealand in 2011, his first taste of the showpiece event. 

keith-earls-and-rob-kearney Still a role to play: Earls and Rob Kearney in training at the 2011 World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Having been kept quiet during Ireland’s opening Pool C wins against the USA and Australia, Earls struck twice in the 62-10 thrashing of Russia as Ireland put nine tries on their opponents. Playing in the number 13 jersey, Earls’ first try arrived after a superb break from Andrew Trimble, the Ulster player creating some space before feeding Earls on the left wing.

“It would be the start of a profitable relationship between the pair at the tournament. Earls added another try in the second half after exploiting a gap in the Russian defensive line.

He was on the score-sheet again as Ireland wrapped up their pool campaign with another comfortable win, this time beating Italy 36-6 in Dunedin. Both of Earls’ tries came in the second half. For his first, he did well to collect a loose Stephen Ferris pass with little space to work with, before swivelling and crashing over the line.

He turned on the stardust for his second double of the World Cup, marking his birthday by theatrically diving over the line after another assist from Trimble.

Source: Munster Rugby/YouTube

That win secured Ireland’s place in the quarter-finals, where they would face Warren Gatland’s Wales.

Declan Kidney’s side were well handled in a thrilling game that ended in a 22-10 defeat, Ireland’s only try coming when Earls capitalised on a rare gap in the Wales defence in the second half. Ireland’s tournament ended in disappointment, but Earls, just 24 at the time, could certainly hold his head high after delivering five tries in New Zealand.

By the time Ireland headed to the 2015 World Cup in England, Earls had long established himself as an integral part of Joe Schmidt’s team.

He was uncharacteristically quiet in Ireland’s opening Pool D game against Canada, failing to score as Ireland notched up seven tries in an emphatic 50-7 win. 

He made up for it with two tries as Ireland hammered Romania 44-10 in Wembley, scoring the third World Cup brace of his career.

Earls crossed just before the half-hour mark after showing a wonderful burst of acceleration down the left wing, adding a second in the early stages of the second half by getting on the end of a neat Eoin Reddan grubber.

keith-earls-goes-free-to-score-his-sides-second-try Earls goes free to score against Romania. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He was moved to centre for the next outing against Italy as injuries began to take their toll on Schmidt’s side, but still supplied the only try of the game with 18 minutes on the clock, charging over from a few yards out after a clever reverse pass from Johnny Sexton and strong carry from Robbie Henshaw.

The score was his eighth World Cup try, taking him one clear of Brian O’Driscoll as Ireland’s all-time leading World Cup try-scorer.

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He continued at centre for the remainder of the tournament, Ireland beating France in a pulsating encounter before a crushing quarter-final loss to Argentina.

It was more World Cup heartbreak for Ireland, but once again Earls had underlined his importance to the team. 

In the four years since, Earls has only improved, with the Limerick native playing some of the best rugby of his career over the last few seasons. While still able to fill in at centre, he is now almost exclusively played on the wing, a development which has allowed him to perfect his craft as he enters the twilight years of his career.

He will turn 32 next week but remains as vital as ever to Ireland’s chances, regularly keeping the likes of Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway out of the starting XV, even though his role in this Ireland team has changed over the years.

earls Selected leading World Cup try-scorers

The emergence of Jacob Stockdale has taken the scoring burden away from Earls. Since 2018, he has scored just five tries in 16 games for Ireland. Stockdale, by comparison, has scored 12 tries during 17 caps in that same period. 

Earls’ contribution to the team extends far beyond providing the finishing touch to attacks now. Remember his superb aerial catch in the build-up to Sexton’s famous drop goal in Paris last year, or his wonderful last-ditch ankle tap on England’s Elliot Daly as Ireland wrapped up the Grand Slam in Twickenham. The tries may have started to dry up, but the big moments certainly have not.

If Ireland are to finally break through the quarter-final glass ceiling in Japan, a fit and firing Earls will be crucial.

Gavan Casey is joined by Andy Dunne and, from Japan, Murray Kinsella ahead of Ireland’s Rugby World Cup opener against Scotland.


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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