Selecting the Italian team is not the hardest job in the world. There are not many players to choose from. But it is not so easy picking the best in France or New Zealand or even Ireland. Should Ireland play a genuine number seven or their three best back rowers, is it O’Gara or Sexton or can the two play together, and how long can they keep the faith in Keith Earls?
If selection was easy then Mike Ross would have been identified long before he was. But Ross was 30 years of age before Ireland picked him. He had been missed by their development coaches and it took Dean Richards to give Ross his first professional contract. Without the acumen of Richards and Quins both Ireland and Leinster would probably be still lurching about in the scrum.
The opposite side of the equation is the guy who gets picked young and keeps getting picked. That man is Keith Earls. Sometimes this philosophy works. Steve Waugh averaged 30 runs in his first 26 test matches, but went on to become one of Australia’s finest cricketers.
But the selectors persisted with Waugh because there was evidence in one-day cricket that he had the head and the bottle for the game. I am not so sure the same is true of Earls. He appears to be a good lad and is certainly physically talented. But the courage and the brains that defined one CMH Gibson sometimes seem to be missing.
In short, how many matches must Earls blow for Ireland before Declan Kidney, who seems an optimistic selector, might admit that his judgement is wrong? There were warning signs when Earls made his debut for the Lions as a young man and dropped four balls in the first 20 minutes. It is not something you can imagine Gibson or Brian O’Driscoll ever doing.
But Kidney seems to persist in ignoring the warning signs. In his first match he moved Rob Kearney to the wing in order to accommodate Earls at full-back. It is hard to believe now. Kidney has also picked Earls on the wing and in the centre. Maybe men with the gifts of James O’Connor or Adam Ashley-Cooper are so easily versatile, but Earls?
Earls has gas, but he is not a particularly good passer and lacks vision. Against France in the Six Nations he butchered a 4 on 2 overlap when he cut back inside. He was also twice nudged into touch because he stayed by the line when Tommy Bowe or any articulate back would have gone on the inside cut. What on earth was he thinking? Was he thinking? His schooldays were not noted for that particular quality.
The same question could have been asked when Earls broke the defensive line by attempting a wild fly hack on a loose ball. Earls missed and France scored through the gap that he had vacated. These sort of defensive lapses happen too often for an international footballer.
Earls missed important tackles against Wales in the World Cup quarter-final. Manu Tuilagi ran past him with some ease in the pre WC match against England. Paul Sackey did the same in a European match.
My fear is that Earls does not have the rugby intelligence to match his physical talents and, as he has said himself: “I’ve always struggled with confidence.” There are plenty of fans who see the same thing. One drinking game involves a shot of vodka every time Earls makes a mistake.
It is not Earls fault that he has been promoted too soon and too far. But at what point will Kidney be man enough to admit that he may have made a mistake. Sometimes saying sorry is the hardest part of being a selector.