IN AND AROUND any international series, it has become inevitable that a number of bizarre viewpoints take on the status of hard facts, whether by being repeated by influential media personnel, through selective memories of those involved or good old-fashioned provincial bias.
Last season it was decreed that Ireland needed huge backs and that Sean O’Brien couldn’t play openside. This year, a few more are circulating already. One; Keith Earls can’t play 13.
Perpetrators: A lot of people who don’t come from Limerick.
Last week our comments section became weighed down with folk of the fixed opinion that ‘Keith Earls can’t/shouldn’t/isn’t a natural/isn’t a test class 13′. Now, we don’t want to be picking a fight to our loyal readership, but we’re just not buying this one.
Let’s start by going back to last year when we posted this piece. Since then (in fact, pretty much since the World Cup), Earls has done everything asked of him. He shone like a beacon amid Munster’s abysmal back play last season, all from the position of 13, and in spite of incompetence all around him. He threw in a shocker of a performance at home to Castres, but since that day has been excellent. Remember the pivotal Ulster game in Thomond Park? Earls was brilliant: he showed quick hands to get Zebo into the corner for his try and the highlight was his sumptuous pass to Felix Jones late in the second half, which looked to have put the full-back into open country, only for him to inexplicably drop the ball.
In the Six Nations he performed admirably in the role, in the absence of O’Driscoll, and generally won good reviews for his performances. His good form in the role continued into this season, when he looked pin-sharp before his injury. The argument that he can’t actually do it is based on a few things: that Earls lacks the size to play the role, that he is a poor defender and that he lacks the distribution and awareness of space.
On the last point, we would direct anyone of this opinion to the video below, of a try in Ravenhill this season. Yes, you can prove anything with a highlights reel, but in this try Earls touches the ball three times, and every touch shows such natural footballing intuition that it can only come from a player with keen awareness of space and good distribution. His first is an expertly timed round the corner pass to put Billy Holland into a gap, his second a beautiful, fast pass in front of Laulala to open up the space out wide. Does he stay take a moment to marvel at the splendour of his skill? He does not, instead making a beeline to support the men out wide and gets on the end of Hurley’s inside pass to score a try.
It’s the sort of skillset that can’t be taught or manufactured. It’s classic midfield play.
YouTube: Tap tackle
Then we have the size argument. True, he is not a huge man. Keith Earls tips the scales at 90kg. That’s three kilos lighter than both Brian O’Driscoll and Fergus McFadden and four lighter than Wesley Fofana, who plays in the traffic-heavy 12 channel. But more importantly, the size argument is frequently ill-deployed. Most ‘Earls is not a 13′ campaigners are happy to continue to select him on the wing. But in these days of George Norths and Tim Vissers, the wings are no more suitable for lightweights than the midfield. Either you can defend well enough to play in the three-quarter line or you can’t, and we’d argue that Earls can.
There’s a sense that certain high profile bloopers have been over-played – compare and contrast the reactions to the Manu Incident in August 2011 and Gareth Maule’s burning of BOD a few weeks ago. Incident 1 has been re-treaded ad infitum (and we are as guilty as anyone in that regard), yet Incident 2 is written off as an obvious freak, something that will never happen again – which of course it probably was, since those things happen to everyone from time-to-time, even BOD. And Keith Earls.
Earls has shown in the last 12 months he has the football to play at 13, and he looks like he has the mental too – we’d pick him at 13 for this series, in spite of the form of Darren Cave – he’s one of our best players and its his best position.