EVER SINCE DECLAN KIDNEY placed Keith Earls in ‘pole position’ to replace Brian O’Driscoll at outside centre, the Limerick native has done just about everything to prove him wrong.
The former Ireland coach made the claim at the 2011 World Cup and backed it up by starting him at 13 for the following year’s Six Nations. Earls underwhelmed in the role and was often guilty of holding onto the ball and running into trouble when a better option was on his shoulder.
He started at 12 in Eden Park as Ireland were torn apart by the All Blacks during the summer tour of 2012. Although he was listed as inside centre, O’Driscoll spent much of the match in the role with Earls a step or two further back. His last two outings were against South Africa — failed to connect with Tommy Bowe to hash a try-scoring chance — and Argentina [we rated him 6/10].
He returned to the left wing for Munster and Ireland earlier this year and has predominantly featured for his province on the right wing this season. The Limerick man missed the November Series but his Munster performances this season have proved he is the greatest asset to his team by playing out wide.
This may all change next season as Munster have confirmed the departure of Casey Laulala to the Top 14. While it has yet to be officially informed by Laulala or his intended club, Racing Métro seem to have outmanoeuvred Grenoble for the centre’s signature.
Taking a look at Munster’s current squad, it is clear to see that they are hardly stocked up on 13s. James Downey is currently holding down the inside centre slot for the big matches while Ivan Dineen and Cian Bohane are more suited at 12. 20-year-old Rory Scannell is making his mark with the A team but flits between inside centre and fullback roles.
Connacht’s 23-year-old outside centre has been linked with a southern move and would certainly offer some pace and guile to the Munster backline. The Galwegian has yet to sign a new contract with Pat Lam’s men but a Connacht spokesperson told TheScore.ie that talks about his future are ongoing and the province are hopeful of securing his player services for at least two more seasons.
Earls has appeared in the Irish midfield in 12 of his 39 Test caps. INPHO/James Crombie
The proximity of the 2015 World Cup to the start of next season suggests lucrative moves for established, yet ageing, southern hemisphere stars [Conrad Smith, Jaque Fourie] are unlikely. Former Auckland Blues centre Benson Stanley failed to settle at Clermont Auvergne and is a live option. Rob Penney may, once again, use the South African contacts that brought him Gerhard van den Heever and CJ Stander to coax a Currie Cup-standard 13 to Munster.
Earls has never hidden his desire to play at outside centre for Munster and Ireland. With Laulala heading out the exit door and Earls’ contract negotiations with the province, and IRFU, ongoing, one would not be surprised if a permanent starting spot at 13 was a key talking point.
Whether that is in the best provincial or national interest is another matter.