Earls reaps benefits of Lions tour
For most, the Lions' opening game on last summer's tour to South Africa was a largely forgettable affair.
The opposition was provided by a thrown-together Royal XV, the venue was a three-quarters empty stadium in the provincial backwater of Rustenburg and the result was very nearly a shock victory for the home side.
The tourists looked disjointed and lethargic and produced a plethora of errors which were seized upon gleefully by their pumped-up hosts and it took the cool head of Ireland out-half Ronan O'Gara to steer the Lions over the line and prevent a disastrous start to the tour.
However, for Keith Earls, that game will never be forgotten. It was an occasion that had a profound effect.
Earls' prodigious talents were well known in Ireland before the squad to tour South Africa was selected but his inclusion provoked an indignant reaction in the British media who questioned why this youngster from Limerick with just two caps (a start against Canada and a cameo appearance versus the All Blacks) was selected ahead of the likes of Delon Armitage, Josh Lewsey and Chris Paterson.
When Earls, playing at centre, endured a nightmare opening quarter which included four knock-ons, there were plenty of ‘I told you so' glances going around the press box and his impact on the tour was written off there and then.
After picking up an injury that ruled him out of the next couple of fixtures, Earls could easily have gone into this shell but the Lions' support team rallied around the youngster and got to work on restoring his shattered confidence.
“The Lions badge and jersey can make you do funny things,” said assistant coach Rob Howley afterwards.
“It can make you feel 6' 8” tall, or you can drop that first and second ball. Keith will be a much better player from the experience.
“With Keith, it is about nipping it in the bud now by talking about his experience so he will learn and gain confidence from that.”
Howley was spot on. Earls went on to have an excellent tour, displaying the sort of form that could have justifiably earned him a spot in the Test match 22 against the world champions.
He was a popular member of the touring party, entrusted with the task of babysitting the Lion mascot until Leigh Halfpenny replaced him as the youngest member of the squad, and five months on, the 22-year-old looks back on that Royal XV footnote as a career-changing experience.
“I've definitely improved mentally from the Lions,” says Earls. “If anything I've come back a confident player.
“Something I struggled with last season was my confidence but now from the Lions I know that it's only a game of rugby so enjoy it.
“The tour was an outstanding experience. It was an absolute dream come true for me, to be there with the different countries and to see how they do stuff, it was brilliant.”
When Earls emerged as an outstanding young talent with Munster, he was sensibly protected from media scrutiny by coach Tony McGahan and allowed to find his feet in the professional game.
Though the talent was there for all to see and the plaudits rained down upon him, inwardly he was questioning whether he had the right to operate on this stage, even struggling to find the sanctuary of sleep on the eve of big games.
“Last year was a good year but if I came up against a good team or if I came up against a good player opposite me, I'd kind of be thinking ‘Jesus I'm not good enough to be here' because maybe I'd grown up watching him and maybe he's a legend of the game and now I'm in there and I just struggled a small bit.
“I did a lot of work with Gerry Murphy, our sports psychologist. I'm feeling more relaxed before games.
“Gerry's been telling me how to relax, how to just go out and play the game of rugby I've been playing for years.”