THE DEBATE OVER Keith Earls’ best position for Ireland has raged on ever since the Limerick native made his international debut as a 21-year-old fullback.
Earls raced in a try against the Canadians on his first time out and took on an All Blacks backline containing Joe Rokocoko, Ma’a Nonu and Sitiveni Sivivatu.
Seven months, and no Irish caps, later, the Munster player was off to South Africa as part of the British and Irish Lions tour.
By the time he returned, Rob Kearney had jumped from class to world-class. Earls was a winger and happy with his lot.
Over the next two years he made eight straight starts on the left wing, scored five tries, and, despite outings in the Munster midfield, Irish supporters quelled the chatter.
Fitness concerns over Brian O’Driscoll cropped up in the run-in to the World Cup and Earls got starts at outside centre. A further taste came against Russia at the World Cup and Earls had his fill when O’Driscoll missed out on the 2012 Six Nations.
From everyman to bench-warming
We posted a piece before Ireland’s tour to New Zealand that suggested Earls may suffer for his versatility. So it has proved.
He started at 12 in the First Test at Eden Park but played the outside centre role in a 42-10 blitz by the ABs.
Earls missed out on the Second Test heroics in Christchurch while the stand-out memory of his 20th, and last, wing appearance was a fend-off from Hosea Gear that left him reeling.
As he lay on the turf, and Gear celebrated his try, at Waikato Stadium, the only person to show any concern was Sonny Bill Williams.
The sporting triple-threat could emphaitise with Earls for another reason – his All Black career was divided between centre and wing.
Earls does the maths during Ireland’s 60-0 loss in New Zealand. (©INPHO/Billy Stickland)
Statement of intent
Earls has been on the record, in his soft-spoken but assured manner, for the past two years stating that the centre is his preferred position. His coach, Declan Kidney, admitted as far back as 2011 that the Munster man was heir apparent to O’Driscoll.
The emergence of Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy as exciting wing talents gave us the luxury of sitting Earls, a truly talented winger, on the bench as he waits for O’Driscoll’s incredible to run out.
The metatarsal break for Zebo, and his 10-week lay-off, was a gut check but substitute Earls come on against England was was the best Irish back on show. He made two superb breaks that had the English defence struggling to cope.
Kidney has plenty of wing options, including Fergus McFadden, Luke Fitzgerald and Andrew Trimble, who could switch flanks with Gilroy.
If Ireland are serious about chasing this Six Nations title, or hounding England until they play Wales in Cardiff, then Earls is the best winger for the job.
Fitzgerald or McFadden – a reliable kicking option – can be the versatile bench filler. It is time for Earls to go home to the left wing.