Three weeks ago it looked as if Keith Earls might have had his last dance. His season and with it, perhaps his career, looked over due to a groin injury he’d aggravated in the draw away to the Sharks. Two hundred Munster caps and out.
“Yeah, it was genuinely over,” admitted Earls after Munster’s thrilling 16-15 win over Leinster. “But after a couple of days, I started feeling a lot better. Good physios, good doctors, good treatment, Graham and the lads looking after me in training and giving me every chance. I was delighted. It was risky but it was well worth the risk.”
Indeed. Come kick-off last Saturday, there he was, the 35-year-old seemingly defying medical opinion amid Munster’s injury crisis on the wings and opposing the departing 33-year-old Dave Kearney in his 186th game for Leinster.
Earls was among those setting the tone with a couple of big defensive reads off his wing early on and to the end was jinking and darting and keeping the move alive, and being monstered by Robbie Henshaw — as he’d been doing all game.
When it was over, ‘oul man Earlsy — they’ve been calling him that for years — was out on his feet and could seemingly scarcely believe what had unfolded himself.
“Yeah, it was overwhelming at the end. I genuinely shed a tear. You know, it’s been a rough season for me personally. It’s tough sitting out watching the lads and thankfully I got a shot this week.
“It means everything. I haven’t won a trophy in 12 years with Munster, and that’s something I want to do because there’s only, I don’t know how long left,” he admitted.
As to where this ranked alongside his previous 200 outings for Munster, Earls said wearily: “I’m exhausted, genuinely exhausted. It was a tough game, it always is. I’ve played with a lot of the Leinster lads in Ireland camp, and I know how tough they are. I know how mentally strong they are and physically, tactically, and emotionally it’s always close to international standard. And I know I haven’t played in a long time but that was definitely the hardest game I’ve played for Munster, 100 per cent.”
After so many losses to their rivals in blue, Earls took understandable pride in the way Munster dug deep into their playing reserves, as well as their reserves of character.
“You mentioned Stevie [Archer] there, we were calling him ‘160 minutes Stevie’. He put in 160 minutes down in South Africa for a fellah who is 35 years of age, the same age as myself. Even the lads who haven’t played, Calvin Nash has been leading the way all year, Mala [Fekitoa] was there as well.
“There’s just so many in the group and I think it’s the coaching, the way they’re bringing on the lads. They’re not frightened to pick on form, to pick players, drop certain players, and it’s made this squad unbelievably competitive. And that’s what we want. There’s loads of fellas hurting in there as well who haven’t been wearing a jersey today, but it genuinely is a massive squad effort all season with the fixtures we’ve had, travelling.
“Jean Kleyn is another fella who has been immense. Every Monday morning after a game he’s absolutely battered. But we truly are building a nice squad at the moment; a lot of young lads learning, a lot of good young lads who want to listen and who want to learn as well.
“So, yeah, we’re in a good place but it’s no good if we’ve nothing to show for it at the end of the season. It’s what we want.”
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Earls is on a central contract until the conclusion of the World Cup and knows what his future holds, but would only say: “I do, yeah. But it’s kinda open-ended.”
“Four more years,” quipped Munster head coach Graham Rowntree.
A try scorer along with Doug Howlett in that 2011 Magners League 19-9 triumph over Leinster in 2011 at Thomond Park, if this is to be Earls’s last dance, it would be so fitting for him to be part of the team to end the trophy drought.