Keith Earls will aim to put Munster’s Heineken Cup exit behind him when he embarks on his second RBS 6 Nations campaign with Ireland, beginning with Saturday’s game against Italy.
Keith Earls, 23, is included in an exciting Ireland back-three which includes the 24-year-old Fergus McFadden and Luke Fitzgerald (23) at full-back, and he was quick to praise Test newcomer McFadden on team announcement day.
“Fergus is on top form for the last couple of months. It’s going to be exciting to play with him,” said Earls, who will win his 14th cap on Saturday.
“He is a good runner and great defender and with Lukey as well, we all know what he can do – it should be good.”
The game represents a chance for Earls and the Munster contingent to put their early exit from the Heineken Cup behind them. Last month’s defeat to Toulon still rankles with him.
“It was the worst feeling I have ever had with Munster. The week after was tough. All the lads are still hungry. It’s a new competition, new players, new gameplan and hopefully we’ll be good.
“It’s a shock to the supporters more than anyone. I think we made a bit of bad history being the first team out in 13 seasons, but we will be hungry.
“We’ll learn from our mistakes. I think we beat ourselves in a couple of games, so we will learn, we’ll be stronger and it won’t be the end of us.”
Earls is now hoping for a steady run in the Ireland team after playing a peripheral role during the November internationals. Having recovered from an ankle injury, he was used as a replacement against South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina.
“It was very frustrating (during the autumn), but I had only played a handful of games coming back from injury. I wasn’t fit, I was overweight,” he admitted.
“Deccie said I had to work on my fitness during the autumn but I got a bit of game-time as well, so I’m where I want to be now. I am a lot lighter and I feel sharp.”
Playing in what is largely a Leinster back-line holds no worries for Earls, who added: “I have been here the last two years. I have gotten on great with the Leinster lads.
“I think against Fiji two years ago, I played in a Leinster-dominated back-line again and it was a good game, a good victory and I got two good tries.
“It’s good. Different players, different lines of running and you get to know them.”
Asked about general expectation levels coming into the Championship, the Moyross native says that the hunger is there from the players’ point of view, especially after some good recent performances from the provinces.
“It grows from the provinces – Leinster are doing very well, Ulster are in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup and Connacht are winning in France, taking a couple of big scalps as well.
“With Munster, we’re in the quarter-finals of the Amlin Challenge Cup. It’s good. Everyone is hungry (to achieve something and challenge for trophies).”
Despite the current list of injuries for Ireland, the competition in the squad remains very strong and now it is up to Earls and other players to grasp the opportunity and retain their positions over the coming weeks.
“A lot of fellas are delighted to be playing. I think we are going to go out there and hopefully we play well and hopefully we will be there for the five games. We don’t want to leave anyone back in,” he insisted.
“Declan has been building a squad the past two years. It is extremely hard. You can’t pick five or seven players in the back-line any more, or even the front eight. It is tough.”