'My wife thought I was going to have a heart attack' - Keith Earls opens up about World Cup woes
*Our #RWC2019 coverage is in association with Beechfield Healthcare
Four years ago, in the week of Ireland’s ill-fated Rugby World Cup quarter-final against Argentina, Keith Earls got himself into such a state of nervous tension that his wife Edel feared he would have a seizure.
The Moyross native, who is line to win his 82nd cap against New Zealand on Saturday, looked back on that unhappy time this week, at the Ireland hotel alongside Tokyo Disneyland.
“I felt violently ill all week going into it. It was ridiculous,” he said. “After that game, I said to myself I'd never leave myself get to that stage again. My wife thought I was going to have a heart attack with the state I was in and I've learned to deal with that.”
With experience comes self-awareness and perspective. Two weeks after his 32nd birthday, Earls is in a much better place now. He could be a part of the first Ireland team to make the World Cup semi-finals, but win or lose he’ll stay on an even keel this time.
“I prepare as well as I can - and what's the worst case scenario of the weekend? You either go into the history books or I go home to my wife and kids, and everyone's healthy.”
“I'm really enjoying this week, I'm a bit more relaxed,” he added. “It's another game, isn't it? It's just against the reigning world champions and it's going to be a massive challenge, but if we're to test ourselves and want to go on to achieve great things, we're going to have to play them at some stage.”
These days the Munster winger is one of the elder statesmen in the team and despite failing to add to his 30 Ireland tries he has been in excellent form in his third World Cup.
His first was back in 2011, and he was so anxious to perform in New Zealand that he only ended up adding to the pressure he was feeling. “Back then, I probably would have changed something during the week, something ridiculous like changing my diet or my routine, trying to get better.
“Now I have a good routine and I prefer to be way more relaxed. I think that comes from doing all of my homework - looking at our detail, looking at their plays. The biggest thing is if you prepare as well as you can - and you can look yourself in a mirror after a game - that's all you can do. Win, lose or draw, it doesn't matter if you can do that.”
Looking back, he wishes he had asked for more advice from the senior players around him, like Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll.
“I probably didn't ask them enough questions because it probably would have been seen as being mentally weak back then.
“I think now we're a lot more open-minded. It's alright for fellas to be nervous. If you're not nervous, there's something wrong with you. Nerves are good because it means you care. It's trying to use those nerves as a positive rather than a negative.”
The wheel turns and at this World Cup younger Ireland players such as Jacob Stockdale have praised Earls for giving them the benefit of the lessons he learned the hard way. His advice has been straightforward: stay in the moment and keep doing what got you into the team in the first place.
They could be timely words of encouragement, as Ireland attempt to go further in the tournament than the previous golden generation of players ever managed.
“Maybe because it's a quarter-final, you think you have to change things,” Earls said. “I wouldn't change anything now. I've learned the last couple of years that you prepare the same for Russia as you would New Zealand. That's where you get confidence from.”
This week brought the third anniversary of the shock death of his former team-mate and coach, Anthony Foley. Did that dreadful loss change his perspective, Earls was asked.
“I was working on it, but then him passing kind of brought it to light,” he said of the man who he credits with being a hugely positive influence on him.
The passing years have not slowed him down – if anything, he still looks the fastest of the 31 players in the Ireland squad. His try-saving tackle on Japan’s Kenki Fukuoka came after a lung-bursting run that ensured Ireland earned a vital bonus point in defeat.
“Yeah, I'm feeling great,” he smiled. “I think it's the Onsen baths over here! They're great, the Japanese, with their hot baths - you can go and relax.
“It’s amazing the kind of chats you would get down there. You’d be chatting about players or about training and all of a sudden there's a load of detail having been spoken inside there.
“I had terrible back issues for two years. I genuinely, bar one or two injuries, feel the best that I've felt in two years. That's hand on heart.”
Earlier in the week, fly-half Johnny Sexton expressed surprise at what he termed the “strange” criticism at some of Ireland’s performances in Japan. Earls, though, hasn’t allowed this external noise to mess with his relaxed routine.
“No, I genuinely don't know what the buzz is at home. I hear it's negative as well at times,” he said.
“I don't want to get distracted by it. It’s maybe cheesy, but I know my kids are excited, my wife is excited, but that's about it.”
All of Limerick and Ireland will be excited too if Earls can punish the All Blacks with his electrifying pace on Saturday, in the biggest game of his career.