Both Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald scored hat-tricks that owed much to the men around them, but also gave a glimpse of the talents of each. The scoring of a hat-trick in and of itself means nothing (to prove the point, even I can lay claim to scoring one!). However, each of the wunderkind showed a touch along the way that hints at the talent residing within.
Fitzgerald's second try demonstrated an extraordinary instinct. Paterson's attempt at kicking long was badly struck and smacked into the chasing Fitzgerald. What followed seemed a trick of the eye, as the 20 year old winger caught the ball despite not actually looking at it and in fact bracing himself against the impact. As the crowd struggled to comprehend where the ball was, Fitzgerald was already off and cantering towards the line.
Meantime, Earls' hat-trick was routine apart from his second try, for which he threw a dummy to cut inside a drifting defence, slid a grubber along the ground for himself and followed up to score. All that sounds impressive enough, but the beauty lay in the way he flicked the ball up with his foot on the run just a couple of yards from the line. Strictly speaking it wasn't necessary, as he was in space and could have just jabbed it on another couple of yards and fallen on the ball over the line. However, his instinct met the opportunity as the ball just came up off the ground enough to enable him to get his instep under it and rise it into his hands to cruise under the posts. Had he thought about it he probably wouldn't recommend the manoeuvre as it could have gone badly wrong and left him looking red faced. The joy of the moment was that he didn't even think - he had done it by the time thought entered into the equation.
I'll be honest and admit that for all the hoo-haa that has surrounded his ascent into top-flight rugby, I hadn't really caught the Keith Earls bug. He looked competent to me as opposed to exciting in the admittedly limited number of Under-age matches and the Churchill Cup I had seen him play during the summer. I suspect I'm not alone, amongst those not intimately familiar with his Schools and Club (a virtuoso performance for Garryowen in the AIB League semi final last season saw them knock Shannon out in some style) career, in feeling genuinely excited for the first time about the player.
In both provinces, Earls and Fitzgerald have given their respective coaches a lot to think about in terms of their backline options. Both are blessed (or is that cursed?) with versatility and offer options at fullback, wing and centre.
The selection of Earls at full-back in particular, has thrown an interesting angle on the back three. Denis Hurley closed out last season as the man in clear possession at Fullback, having seen off the challenge of Shaun Payne last season. However, he has failed to start either of the two Magners matches to date, with Howlett at 15 away to Edinburgh and Earls there at home to the Dragons. Earls played on the right wing against the Scots, but in my view he will end up either as a centre or at Fullback as I don't believe he has the out and out pace of a top class winger. I hope I am proved wrong on this count.
With Rua Tipoki and Lifeimi Mafi certainties for the midfield berths, it would appear that Earls best bet in terms of making the Munster first team for the big matches lies with the Fullback role for now. That said, Rua Tipoki has just turned 35 last month and while he is rivalling Frank Bunce as an apparently ageless centre, realistically you'd have to think this is his last season at the top level of the game. Earls would appear to have the right combination of football skill and incisive running that could fill the gap left by Tipoki's departure.
Similarly, Luke Fitzgerald raises almost as many questions as he solves for Michael Cheika. But then, save for Chris Whitaker in the backline, every other player does too. With the advent of Rocky Elsom and CJ van der Linde, the forward unit will require relatively few big calls involving multiple players. The back line on the other hand will be the scene of Cheika's greatest difficulties. Assuming Gordon D'Arcy returns to full fitness after his horror break, how do you decide between Sexton/Contepomi/Nacewa at outhalf; O'Driscoll/D'Arcy/Contepomi/Nacewa/Fitzgerald/Horgan at centre; Kearney/Fitzgerald/Nacewa/Horgan on the wings; Dempsey/Nacewa/Kearney/Fitzgerald at fullback? Best of luck, mate!
For his part, Fitzgerald seems determined not to become the easy out for Cheika this season. Many feel that his best position long-term is in the centre and he certainly seems to have the pace, running skills and hands to be excellent in the position. My worry about placing him there at this point in his career would be that while he's strong and brave, he would be targeted defensively as he is still relatively slight for the position. I don't think Cheika is especially thinking about him in those terms and I think he will be challenging on the wing again this season, leaving Dempsey and Kearney to battle it out as principals for fullback.
Those well versed in Irish history will be aware that the Fitzgeralds, having arrived with Strongbow, became the Earls of Desmond and Earls of Kildare. So this year may very well mark 'The Flight of the Earls'.