Keith Earls was shown up in a huge way very early in the game, and while he fought to come back into it, he’s a somewhat fragile player who isn’t responding well to being moved around in position.
It’s not the biggest move in rugby – left wing to outside centre is just one step inside – and he’s hardly a stranger to the No13 jersey, having played there many, many times for Munster.
With that said, there’s a certain amount of sympathy for young Earls at Demented Mole Towers. It’s beyond time that somebody else was tried at outside centre for Ireland. Kidney has probably left it a little too late [having started Brian O’Driscoll in every game of the 2010-11 season] and his second choice is now not working out. Throughout the period spanning the end of the 2010 Six Nations to the start of the 2011 version of the tournament, Earls was playing No13 for Munster. During the November 2010 Internationals he was used off the bench for five minutes as a fullback against South Africa, regrettably not used at all against Samoa, brought on to replace the injured Luke Fitzgerald on the left wing against New Zealand and finally got some eleven minutes of gametime at outside centre at the end of the Argentina match.
Why we couldn’t afford to give him a start in the No13 jersey against Samoa, and give him 25-30 minutes against Argentina is not just an issue addressed in glorious hindsight, but a selection call that could well have avoided the problems we’re now facing nine months later. Brian O’Driscoll was always going to be 32 years old in this world cup, and he was always going to have to be rested at some point. Why leave the preparations for this eventuality until the last minute?
Kidney picked Earls at left wing for the majority of the Six Nations, where he was the sharpest of the three-quarters, and only moved him to fullback for the last game of the tournament when Luke Fitzgerald’s terrible form at fullback demanded decisive action. Tony McGahan retained him on the left wing for Munster, despite having started him at outside centre for all eleven games that Earls played for the province before the Six Nations. The difference in form and production between Earls at outside centre and Earls at winger for Munster were quite startling, and a good deal of credit should go to Kidney for making the decisive move at international level in February.
Now however, a couple of weeks before the world cup, Kidney is putting Earls in at No13 for Ireland, then taking him back out to left wing, then putting him inside again, and his form has crumbled.
Earls has got quick feet, real pace and a nice step – good raw ingredients for an outside centre. Lack of experience in the position isn’t the key issue behind his current problems; he has played a sizeable portion of three seasons at No13, including six of six Heineken cup matches last season; six of eight Heineken cup matches the season before that, and five of eight in 2008-09. The real issue would seem to be a lack of development of his game at Munster as an outside centre, where he has been more used as an ‘inside-winger’, a trailing runner to a big line-breaking No12 who makes half-breaks and offloads in the tackle. In that way, his skill-set is very similar to Chris Ashton, who looks remarkably good running up the middle once somebody else has broken the first line of defense but very, very ordinary when that doesn’t happen for him … and Ashton’s not playing No13.
The way Ireland are playing at the moment, Earls is without a line-breaking threat, never mind an actual line-breaker inside him in midfield, and his end-of-the-line approach to passing makes Ireland particularly easy to defend.
Passes off both hands, offloading in contact or around tackles, offering yourself as a dummy runner to create space for others, using dummy runners as a threat to create indecision in defenders … has Earls shown much improvement with regard to these aspects of an outside centre’s game over the last three years? I would suggest that he has shown very little, if any.
Added to the above, he now looks defensively suspect: Tuilagi’s try was a common or garden outside break, and the lad just got nowhere near him. He wasn’t bumped off, he just didn’t get near him. This is a fat chappie that a 33-year old Geordan Murphy can beat in a footrace, and yet he went outside Earls with barely more than a finger laid on him. They’re fairly enormous weaknesses for an international outside centre, and hopefully we’ll only see Earls on the wing during the world cup.