Keith Earls was one of the first Irish backs to be landed with the dubious honour of being ‘the next Brian O’Driscoll’, so his first emotion when Garry Ringrose was slapped with the same tag was one of avuncular concern.
For Earls, such talk had been a millstone around his neck, an unwanted burden on a pair of shoulders that was already feeling the weight of expectation after a blistering start to a career that earned him a Lions call-up six months after his 21st birthday.
“When Ringer was coming through and he was being compared to Drico I remember saying, ‘oh god, that poor young fella’. I said, ‘there’s nothing worse than that, you just need to leave him be himself’,” he explains.
“I had been compared to Drico as well and it was the worst thing ever because I was trying to be like Drico, or trying to be better than Drico. Ringer is a very quiet fella, he’ll speak when he has to speak but his workrate off and on the field is phenomenal.”
Ringrose, according to Earls, is already a world-class centre, one who could easily have shone with the Lions last summer had he been picked and a guy who can do bewitching things with a football as well as a rugby one, apparently.
Injured for much of this season with shoulder and ankle injuries, the Blackrock man seems to have used his latest layoff to build muscle onto a relatively slight frame and he banked close to an hour for Leinster against Southern Kings on his comeback last Friday week.
His form wasn’t fantastic in the period between his return from shoulder issues in early December and the game against Ulster a month later when he did his ankle, but Ringrose will need to hit the ground running against the Scots on Saturday.
Some players can step up to that level with so little preparation with more ease than others. Earls remembers the shock to his system of returning for a European Cup game against London Irish back in 2010 after six months out.
“I remember sucking diesel after three minutes, Dougie Howlett telling me to ‘get up’. Look, it is a massive challenge if Ringer does step in [but] he is a different breed. He is lean, he has unbelievable fitness. If he steps in I don’t think there will be any fear of his fitness.”
In truth, Earls never ceases to be amazed by the alacrity with which the younger generation of Irish players find their feet at the highest levels. Ireland’s last summer tour, to the US and Japan, brought that home to him.
The evidence of Ireland’s current Six Nations campaign — despite the absences of so many reputedly ‘key’ players at one point or another — merely backs that up as they brace for the visit of Scotland to the Aviva Stadium.
There is no longer any need for an Irish coach to shuffle his back line like a Rubik’s Cube to fill gaps left by injury, so, there has been little or no talk of switching Earls to 13 in the absence of Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, and Chris Farrell. “It just shows the level where the younger lads are at these days is going through the roof.”
And not just them. No-one has impressed more in an Irish shirt as consistently as the man from Moyross this last year or more. This current run of form is proof of the old cliché players tend to offer up about how every day is a learning day. All self-doubt has long been banished from his mind. Now 30, Earls hasn’t enjoyed his rugby this much since he was 13. Part of that is down to a man who more often trades in illusion and a very different form of magic.
“When you’re enjoying something and it doesn’t seem like work you enjoy it a lot more,” he says.
“It’s what a lot of us do. It is our job, but we think it is everything, which it isn’t.
“I have been relaxing a bit as well. As I am getting older I am trying to find the 1%s between diet and stuff, the psychology and the visualisation. I have been working a bit with Keith Barry as well, just trying to get them 1%s, which seems to be working.
“I don’t want to get into the detail but he knows the brain better than anyone, just in terms of visualisation and stuff like that.”