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Irish will keep calm and stun the All Blacks, insists winger Keith Earls

 

Cool head: Keith Earls has approached this World Cup in a more relaxed state of mind than previous tournaments
Cool head: Keith Earls has approached this World Cup in a more relaxed state of mind than previous tournaments
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

While we've heard plenty about the bond between the front-row union and their long quest to find Japan's best coffee shop, Ireland's back-three at this World Cup have been adopting a different approach to their time together as Saturday's quarter-final with the All Blacks approaches.

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Going down a more traditional route, it's the onsen where they've found themselves gathering, the hot spring baths that are so prevalent throughout the country providing a rare chance for relaxation in the middle of a relentless tournament.

"I'd try and keep myself around the younger lads," said Keith Earls, who in comparison to Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour has, having turned 32 during this tournament, been cast as something of an elder statesman.

"Myself, Jor, Jacob, we'd be down there in the hot baths.

"It's amazing the kind of chats you would get down there. You'd be chatting about plays or about training, and all of a sudden there's a load of detail having been spoken inside there."

While the impromptu study sessions are one thing, Stockdale has already cited the importance of Earls' advice in helping him deal with the pressure of a first World Cup.

Having struggled in the past, Earls can impart the wisdom of a changed perspective no doubt helped along by fatherhood - his two daughters are now six and four - and the death of a close friend in Anthony Foley, but also simply knowing one's body and mind as well.

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"It's my third World Cup and that probably all comes with experience," he said.

"(Before) I probably would have changed something during the week, something ridiculous like changing my diet or changing my routine or tried to get better.

"It wasn't panic but maybe because it's a quarter-final, you think you have to change things.

"I wouldn't change anything now. I've learned the last couple of years that you prepare the same for Russia as you would New Zealand. That's where you get confidence from.

"Now I have a good routine and I prefer to be way more relaxed. I think that comes from doing all of my homework, looking at our detail, looking at their plays. The biggest thing is if you prepare as well as you can and can look yourself in a mirror after a game, that's all you can do. Win, lose or draw, it doesn't matter if you can do that.

"I'm really enjoying this week, I'm a bit more relaxed. It's another game, isn't it? It's just against the reigning world champions and it's going to be a massive challenge but if we're to test ourselves and want to go on to achieve great things, we're going to have to play them at some stage."

It was four years ago, even before this stage of the tournament, that Earls found himself beset with nerves to the point of illness. Now that bit older and wiser, and knowing he likely could have eased his racing mind by talking it through, he is all too willing to help his less experienced cohorts with any burdens, although stresses that they are very much mutually beneficial relationships.

"I'd be open if they come up and ask me any questions about it, I'd have no problem about telling them my experience in the past. I remember the French game, the last group game four years ago, I felt violently ill all week going into it. It was ridiculous," he said.

"My wife thought I was going to have a heart attack with the state I was in and I've learned to deal with that. After that game I said to myself I'd never let myself get to that stage again.

"I probably didn't use the (more experienced) lads enough, I probably didn't ask them enough questions because it probably would have been seen as being mentally weak back then.

"We're a lot more open-minded now. In general, we'd be together a lot, myself, Jacob and Jordo. I learn stuff off them as well.

"In fairness to the two of them, they are as cool as a breeze and I wish I knew back then what I know now when I was their age.

"They're great and there's no fear in them.

"And even Andrew Conway as well, he's been massive for me in this World Cup. On high-ball stuff, he's the master of the high-ball stuff so I sort of pick his brains as well."

A further shift from past World Cups of course comes from Ireland's recent record against Saturday's opposition.

While they've only met once before in this tournament, that coming in 1995, during this cycle, Joe Schmidt has masterminded Ireland's first ever wins against the back-to-back champions, first in Chicago three years ago and then last November in Dublin.

"When you're a kid growing up you see the Haka and everything, you see the black jersey and they're the best players in the world," reflected Earls.

"But in the last three games we've beaten them twice and they've beaten us well as well.

"Look, yeah, we all know it's going to be a massive challenge, but in the back of our heads, the aura they bring, we're not going to be scared of that.

"We know it's going to be a huge challenge but we know that if we get things right we are capable of beating them.

"Obviously one or two results haven't gone their way in the last couple of years but you can see the games they probably should have lost where they pulled something out of the hat and they've beaten teams, they've beaten them unbelievably well.

"So they're entitled to an off-day as well but on some of their off-days, they still win games."

Four years ago such a prospect would have had his stomach in knots. Now?

"What's the worst case scenario of the weekend? You either go into the history books or I go home to my wife and kids, and everyone's healthy," he added.

Even ahead of undoubtedly one of the biggest games in a career, sometimes a little perspective is no bad thing.

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