Keith with Lions' teammates Ronan O'Gara and Donncha O'Callaghan

Keith Earls endures a personal nightmare every other weekend. He hates flying. The big planes that transport Ireland are manageable, but the small, cramped ones that take Munster to various Magners League destinations at all hours of the day and night make Earls feel claustrophobic. When the story of the recent Cork plane crash broke, he was with his room-mate Tomás O’Leary, who shares his phobia, in the Ireland camp. The news hardly did wonders for their confidence.

One person Earls would trust at the helm of a plane, however, is another Ireland team-mate, Tommy Bowe. Earls admits that the winger, who is learning to fly, would be a good person to have around in the event of the pilot being unable to land them safely. Such trust is something that all good rugby teams have in abundance, and the bond players share is one thing the sport is known – and loved – for. Those values have featured throughout Earls’s life and have helped him to carve out a successful sporting career.

To say that school was not for Earls is an understatement. He had no interest in sitting in classrooms all day and when he did attend lessons he used to daydream about sport throughout. So he was constantly in hot water for offences from not handing in his homework to shaving his hair off against school regulations.

When something made him tick, however, Earls was hooked. He enjoyed working with his hands and in woodwork classes he was the picture of concentration. He loved sport, too. Born in Moyross, he grew up a stone’s throw from Thomond Park and could be found there most days after school kicking a rugby ball. Soccer was a keen pastime too, but rugby eventually won his heart. That should come as little surprise for rugby was the sport played by his greatest hero – his father, Young Munster’s Ger Earls.

Earls junior even had a spell in the No 7 jersey when he was 13 in an attempt to be just like his dad. But he was never flanker material and was reluctantly persuaded to switch to centre. “I played every sport I could but I was getting burnt out. I was always asleep!” says Earls of his childhood. “So my father said I should pick a sport I liked and concentrate on that. I just wanted to be like my father. It’s a bit cheesy, but I used to look up to him so much and I loved watching him play.”

Earls dreamt of playing for Ireland but didn’t believe it was a realistic aim, so after leaving school he accepted a job working alongside Thomond’s captain Eddie Fraher as an electrician. The club was in the second division at the time and a number of top-flight teams were interested in Earls, but Fraher had offered him the job on the condition that he stayed put and he was happy to accept the bonus of paid work.

A member of the Munster Academy, Earls had already made a few starts for Munster A when Declan Kidney called him up to the senior squad. But that meant time away from work and missing pay cheques, so it was with relief, as well as delight, that he signed his first development contract. And as soon as Earls waved goodbye to a career as an electrician, he became an integral part of the Munster – and Ireland – squads. “It all happened so fast,” he recalls. “It was only my first season playing for Munster and I ended up getting capped for Ireland and playing for the Lions. It was surreal. My first year of playing rugby was probably the best year I’d ever had.”

Injuries have seen Earls feature on the wing for Ireland in this RBS 6 Nations. While he’s happy to be back in a starting shirt after an injury lay-off of his own saw his form dip last season, it’s the No 13 jersey that he’s set his heart on – and that just happens to be in the possession of a stubborn incumbent: captain Brian O’Driscoll.

“Because I can play a few positions you tend to get the No 22 jersey,” says Earls. “You’re a jack of all trades but a master of none, and it’s very frustrating. Drico’s been around a long time now and people are starting to say he’ll be retiring shortly, but the man is fresh as a daisy. He’s great to have around. You learn so much off him and he’s keen to help, even though he’s Leinster and I’m Munster!”

Earls has one of the biggest games of his career to look forward to this month – against England at the Aviva Stadium. Although the visitors could be travelling with the hopes of winning their first Six Nations title in eight years, Earls has no qualms about ruining their plans. “It’s a massive game but we’ll try to spoil any party,” says Earls. “A lot of people are being negative about the way we play but we’re close to putting in a big performance. You could see in the first few minutes against France that we really had them under pressure. If we keep the ball in hand, we’re going to score a lot more tries.”

England had better watch out for Earls’s electric pace then.

This article appeared in the April 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine

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