UGO MONYE AND Keith Earls had very different experiences while they roomed together on the 2009 British and Lions tour to South Africa.
Earls was only 21 and had played just twice for Ireland when called up to that Lions squad. A nightmare outing in the first game of the tour saw him quickly fall out of favour in terms of selection, and represented a major blow to the young winger’s confidence.
Monye, on the other hand, had his own setbacks but finished the tour on a high thanks to an iconic intercept try in the final Test, signing off as the tourists’ top try-scorer.
“I just thought he was a really humble kid that just wanted to learn and get better,” Monye says.
“He was a young fella back then, new on to the international scene, in many ways like myself although I was a few years older than Keith.
“It’s probably no coincidence as to how he’s kept that kept level of commitment and mindset, and had such longevity in the game.”
The 33-year-old Earls is a very different player to the one who was so badly scarred in South Africa, and heads into this weekend’s Six Nations closer against England as one of Andy Farrell’s form players following an assured performance against Scotland last Sunday.
Earls’ best work in Edinburgh happened without the ball in his hands, but those key contributions in defence went a long way to keeping Ireland in the driving seat and securing the win.
Former England and Harlequins winger Monye was hugely impressed with what he saw, and believes Earls often doesn’t get the credit his performances deserve.
“I think you’ve got fashionable players and non-fashionable players,” Monye continues.
“You’ve got players like Louis Rees-Zammit, who is really fashionable because he’s so fast and he’s cool and he’s young… Then you’ve got Keith Earls who is this old warhorse, but he is exactly that.
“He won a couple of pivotal turnovers (against Scotland).
“But they are not fashionable things to chase balls and get your head over a ball and win turnovers. They kind of go unnoticed, but they don’t go unnoticed by your teammates and the coaches, and that’s why he’s such a valuable component for Munster and Ireland right now.”
Earls isn’t the type of attacker who is going to shoot the light out – he has scored just seven tries in his last 31 Tests – and earlier this week he spoke about how his role within the team has changed, describing himself as more of a defensive winger now.
Ugo Monye and Keith Earls on tour with the Lions in 2009. Source: INPHO/Billy Stickland
His employers clearly place a big value on that side of his game, rewarding Earls with a new central contract earlier this month.
“When the IRFU offer you a new contract, we’ve got to believe and trust that they kind of know what they are doing, right?” Monye says.
“They’re not handing out contracts like confetti, you know? He’s deserved the right to be offered that and that’s through consistency, his body is obviously feeling great and he’s performing.
“When I look at that back three, you’ve got Hugo Keenan – who I think has been brilliant by the way – but a young fella. You’ve got James Lowe who is new to international rugby, so you almost need that someone that can be that glue in that back three, that leader.
“Rob Kearney was that player for over a decade. It didn’t matter who came on to the left or the right wing, because Kearney was there. Keith Earls has almost taken on that mantle right now and I think that’s why he’s really important.
Ugo Monye has joined forces with Tackle Your Feelings to encourage people to #BeKind online during the final weekend of this year’s Guinness Six Nations. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
“You don’t play as many games as Keith Earls has been able to by not being world class, by not being professional, by not being motivated or not being dedicated. He’s done and demonstrated all those things, and that’s why he’s such an important player and that’s why he’ll be a big player this weekend, if he’s selected.