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Earls Boosted By O’Driscoll Influence

Earls Boosted By O’Driscoll Influence

The early nerves are gone now and Keith Earls is a settled member of the Lions touring party, but he admits to still being ‘a little starstruck’ when in the company of Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning captain, Brian O’Driscoll.

Two expressions of admiration from two players on very different career paths, but Keith Earls and South African centre Adrian Jacobs both summed up the high regard Brian O’Driscoll is held in when talking about the Ireland captain this week.

The Dubliner, who has been outstanding for Leinster and Ireland this past season, clearly remains the standard-bearer for centres the world over.

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Ahead of Saturday’s first Test in Durban, Jacobs said he would dearly love to come up against a player of O’Driscoll’s calibre a full ten years after their one and only game against each other.

“O’Driscoll is in a class of his own. I have only played against him once, in the 1998 World Cup Under-19 final against Ireland in France, he was world class then and still is,” he said.

“I have followed his career and I desperately want to have the chance to come up against him again.

“O’Driscoll’s partnership with Jamie Roberts has been one of the features of the Lions tour. We faced Roberts a few times last year when we played Wales and he is a big, strong guy who can cause defences problems.

“A guy like O’Driscoll is always in your face, he has all the skills a centre could dream of, but he never stops battling.

“He is a true competitor and I cannot believe that earlier this year he was being written off as past it.

“He is nowhere near his sell-by date…take him out of any side and you have a big space to fill.”

Earls has played with and against O’Driscoll this past year and the Lions tour has afforded the Limerick youngster more time to learn from the three-time tourist and soak up his on-going advice

“Brian is a player whom I admire and he’s been very good in helping me out, not just here but back home,” Earls said, after being named at full-back in the Lions side to face the Southern Kings. 

“To be honest I am still a little bit starstruck in his company. It’d be tough for any player to get in (a team) ahead of Brian.

“My goal at the start of the season was to just get a few games with Munster never mind make my Ireland debut.

“This (the Lions tour) is just living a dream. I hope I’m a better player now. I think I have learned a lot and am really enjoying it now.”

Earls’ three Lions caps so far have all come as starts at outside centre, O’Driscoll’s playing position, with Jamie Roberts (Royal XV), Luke Fitzgerald (Cheetahs) and Riki Flutey (Western Province) partnering him in the tourists’ midfield.

The 21-year-old, who scored a try on his Ireland senior debut last November, endured a shaky start against the Royals but recovered well to run in an excellent try against the Cheetahs.

However, he got few chances to show his attacking brilliance against Western Province last Saturday, with the midfield particularly crowded and his most influential moment came when his decoy run helped Tommy Bowe get over for the game’s first try.

Yet he is clearly growing in stature here, both on the pitch and off it as part of the various player committees and ‘minder’ of Lenny the Lion, the squad’s mascot, following the injury-enforced withdrawal of Leigh Halfpenny.

Admittedly more comfortable in his surroundings now, Earls has also been heavily praised by the Lions management for the courage shown and sheer hard work he put in when recovering from a shoulder joint injury picked up against the Royals.

It is that exact attitude which has seen him come to the fore with Munster and earn his first two Ireland caps, setting out on what could be a stellar international career.

The player himself, who twelve months ago was playing in the Churchill Cup, could yet feature at some point in the upcoming Test series against the Springboks if things go his way.

Wisely though, he is not looking beyond the Southern Kings and this midweek chance to test himself at full-back, a position he took to with great aplomb for Munster.

“In that first game (against the Royals) I probably tried to score off every ball and that was a mistake. I was trying to prove people wrong who suggested I was lucky to be on tour,” Earls admitted.

“I was nervous, too, which didn’t help but things went a little bit better against the Cheetahs because I just concentrated on doing the basics well. I have a game to play (on Tuesday) and that’s my priority.

“There is no point looking ahead because it would only be a distraction.”

And what does he make of the switch to full-back. Excited by the possibilities?

“Yeah, I’d like to think that I’ll get a bit more space. That’s something I’d enjoy.

“I’ve said before that I don’t want to be seen as this utility back. I’ve no problem playing at centre or full-back, I like both positions really.”

Earls is picking up a catalogue of memories on this tour, and one he experienced at Newlands before the Western Province game is likely to stand out for a long time.

“When I was running out onto the pitch, it was one of the first things I noticed.

“I saw four St. Munchin’s College shirts in the corner – it was amazing to see them in South Africa.

“I know know how important the fans can be to a team. When Munster played in Clermont in the Heineken Cup it was supposed to be a hostile environment, but the Munster fans were magnificent and really gave the team a boost.

“It was great to see and hear the Lions fans last weekend and I think that’s going to be the same in Durban this week.

“There are reports of so many Lions fans coming over for the first Test and it will be great to have them backing the boys.”