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Earls and Munster have found the perfect balance as they aim to end Euro title drought


By David Kelly

Keith Earls spent too much time searching for answers, not knowing that his short life would eventually find them for him. He knows who he is now.

"I'm a father. I'm a husband. I'm a rugby player." No further questions, your honour.

He started his European career at the top, on the bench in 2008, as Munster won a second title in three seasons.

Twenty and fearless. He didn't know any answers. Or questions. Didn't need to. Paulie, ROG, Quinny, Wally, Dougie - they took care of it like Gaillimh and Claw and Woodie had before them.

"I thought I had to be like the older lads," Earls mused. "When I came into the group I was young. I had to be in a squad with men that were having kids for a couple of years. I got mature quite early, learned a lot off the ROGs, Paulies and Dougies."

Munster haven't returned to a final since. Earls won a Grand Slam and toured with the Lions but he bothered himself too much about why. He thought he had the answers but realised he was asking the wrong questions.

Now, as Munster face a fifth semi-final week since 2008, Earls is an ancient mariner of 29, a father and a husband who has finally discovered that he doesn't need any answers at all.

"I've found a good balance in my life," said the husband of Edel and father of Ella-May and Laurie. "Years ago it would have been all rugby, but now I've gone more to the other side. That's something I've picked up on in the last 18 months."

The old Munster warriors needed an inferiority complex to drive them to destiny, but they probably drove the engine too hard by the end of it all.

What they used to become great was past its sell-by date.

Earls has straddled both eras; an elder statesman now, heading the beginning of a legacy forged upon the legendary days from which he emerged.

"The lads who have come in have brought me back down to my age nearly," he smiled. "I'm a lot more relaxed and I'm enjoying it. Still the younger lads need a kick every now and then. They still have to drive standards and they are a different breed."

Earls knows he need not shoulder that burden alone any more; for a while it seemed that he, like the whole club itself, had become mired in confusion, altering coaches and game plans.

Trying to become something else and forgetting who they were. Earls had to tear himself away from that rocky road.

The birth and occasionally fraught health of his own family allowed for the introspection he needed for himself.

And this year, of course, death has forced the whole place to regather a sense of not necessarily where they are going but just exactly where they are. Here.

"It's great to be here," he acknowledged. "I had to find myself. With the amount of rugby I'd played, I had to adapt my training, gym-wise, and adapt as a man, becoming a father. I'm loving every minute of everything at the moment."

And he doesn't have to worry about the younger players. "If anything, they have helped me." Munster have always been player-driven, but this generation seem to operate on a more mindful level.

"They're still tough, hard men, but they know how to switch off. It's a lot more relaxing. In general, it's a good balance we have."

Munster have needed to find that balance for so many reasons.

Less than a year after their second triumph, they were nailed-on favourites for a third in 2009 after blitzing the Ospreys en route to a Croke Park last-four date with then perennial also-rans Leinster.

Few expected defeat; fewer still that it would begin a run of four losing semi-finals.

Pressure is not knowing whether you'll get the chance to make a semi-final at all. This time last year they were scrapping just to qualify.

Another unavoidable quirk to the tale - even though he squirms with slight agitation at the merest mention of it - was the tantalising possibility that, instead of lining out in Munster red, he may have been in Saracens black this weekend.

He never wanted to leave, but a complicated combination of personal and professional circumstances almost presented him with a difficult career compromise. Mercifully for all, he was never brought to what would have been an improbable brink of exit from the only life he has known.

"It would have been an awkward week for me, wouldn't it?" he smiled. "Look it didn't happen so there's no point in talking about it if that's alright to leave it as that kind of an answer."

Hence Earls can appreciate what this week is when it could have been - again - all about what it isn't.

"It was a tough place trying to qualify for this tournament not to mind being in a semi-final this week," he said.

"You always had your people who would support you, but it's gone through the roof again, red flags everywhere and everyone's looking for signed jerseys.

"It's brilliant for the lads in the past to see this crop of lads keep things going. We won't be scared of pressure this week, you know. I don't think young lads feel pressure any more, which is weird."

It's as if nothing else matters and few things matter much to quote dreary old AJ Balfour.

Problem was he hated life; Earls and Munster are loving it. After all, that's what life has taught them.

Leinster ready to earn their stripes

Adidas are set to take over from Canterbury as kit suppliers to Leinster in season 2018-19 on a five-year contract.

A Leinster spokesman said the province do not comment on contracts but it’s understood the decision has already been made, leaving adidas with both of the island’s biggest rugby brands – Munster and Leinster.

“Everybody wants exclusivity now, that’s the way the market is going,” an industry source said. “I’d say it’s only a matter of time before someone will want an exclusive deal with the Irish shirt when that becomes available.”

Canterbury, who have been long-term suppliers to Leinster, took over the IRFU contract from Puma in 2015 on a deal worth more than €3m annually between cash, kit and bonuses. That contract runs up to 2020.

Belfast Telegraph


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