The returning Keith Earls has hit the ground running in a Munster jersey this season, scoring on his seasonal bow against Ulster and following up with a man-of-the-match display in a bonus point victory over the Dragons.
Making his first appearance of the season at Thomond Park, Keith Earls’ looping pass launched the red tide for Munster’s opening try against the Newport Gwent outfit.
He was also prominent in the build-up to the province’s second try, scored by Niall Ronan, provided the assist for Simon Zebo’s second half effort and tore through the Dragons before Tommy O’Donnell was sent in out wide for the final try of the night.
Earls’ eye-catching performance at outside centre earned him the RaboDirect PRO12 man-of-the-match award, a week on from his try-scoring seasonal bow against Ulster.
The Limerick man also came in for some deserved praise from Rob Penney when the Munster head coach assessed the 33-13 defeat of the Dragons afterwards.
“Keith’s performance was terrific. I thought it took a lot of courage for him to make that first pass of the day, under a lot of pressure and he had to throw it up pretty blind really,” he said.
“And it’s something we worked on during the week given the defensive structures that the Dragons present. That really set the tone for the evening. It was on the back of a really good set piece. That pass from centre to Zebs was a terrific pass and it got us under way.
“I think the beauty about Keith is his durability and his versatility. He’s a tough robust bloke. He’s very athletic and he’s very skilful. I think he’s a marvellous 13, he can also play inside centre I think and he’s obviously proven on the wing.
“And he could probably play full-back too if we wanted him too. He’ll get the opportunity right at the start to play 13 and he’ll get opportunities elsewhere and it just depends on what’s in the best interests of the team.”
The eagerness to move the ball wide and get the Munster backs involved has been a feature of their early season outings, with players like Earls, Zebo and Ian Keatley clearly revelling in the direction Penney is taking the squad.
The league’s top scorer this season following a run at out-half, Keatley was switched to full-back for the visit of the Dragons and Penney liked what he saw.
“There were one or two little errors but (Ian) is a tremendous attacking threat. His handling, I think in relation to the second try, was superb. Really helped set that up by giving a great pass and then staying in support
“We’re really happy with Ian the way he went in at full-back. It gives us another option to broaden our base in a number of positions which is critical, as I said before.”
Expanding on that point, the New Zealander added: “We’ve a number of positions that are challenging for us. We lost a guy like James Coughlan last week and then Paddy Butler, a young man, comes in and was terrific tonight.
“Niall Ronan’s first game back after Sean Dougall’s done a fantastic job for us at seven and Niall has a steamer.
“So there’s a number of positions. I won’t even try to talk about the front row selectorially because there’s so many good people there. So yep, loads of options to consider.
“Everyone’s putting pressure on for a starting spot and we’ve still got some firepower to come back. It’s really about the depth of probably your players 30 to 35 or 36 that can get you through to silverware contention.
“Because nobody can play 35 games in a programme – maybe 40 for some guys if they played a lot of internationals, if they played everything – and expect to be firing on all cylinders at the end. So the depth of the squad is critical.”
Penney has clearly given his Munster charges the licence to express themselves on the pitch – he says they have ‘to play in a way that reflects their personalities and their love for the game’ – and it has paid off in terms of three wins in their opening four league games.
But with ‘a massive three weeks ahead’ with clashes with the Ospreys and Leinster before their Heineken Cup opener against Racing Metro 92, Penney knows that the hard work is only beginning.
“The younger players pushing through, it’s a good sign. But I think we’ve just got to keep a lid on things a little bit. It’s very early days and these guys are doing a terrific job.
“We just have to keep our feet on the ground and make sure that we work hard on the early part of this week to try keep the growth in the group going.
“It’ll be a good challenge for us, the next three weeks. I don’t know what the outcomes of those challenges will be. We’ll just play one game at a time and keep trying to build on what we’re starting to create,” he added.