Keith Earls’s close relationship with Lions captain Paul O’Connell means he doesn’t feel like an outsider within the squad.
Earls, as the youngest member of the group with Leigh Halfpenny injured, has been carrying the Lions mascot around as part of his duties. The 21-year-old baby-faced Munsterman has played just two Tests and was one of Ian McGeechan’s wildcard picks.
The outside centre has been given the first match on tour on Saturday to prove his ability to his more mature team-mates. There will be no need to do so with O’Connell, with the pair famous friends for nearly 15 years.
‘I’ve known Paul since I was seven or eight,’ said Earls. ‘He was really close to my father [Ger, who also played for Munster] and he is the first professional rugby player I have ever known. He’s an absolute pro on and off the field and he doesn’t let any success go to his head.’
Earls admits he was a surprised as most to hear his name read out on April 22, but like all 36 tourists he believes he can make the Test team.
‘At the start of the season I didn’t even think I’d have a couple of Irish caps,’ he said. ‘But things went well in the Magners League, I secured the No 13 jersey for Munster and it all sort of escalated from there.’
The slightly-built shaven-headed centre will line up alongside the more combative Welshman Jamie Roberts. Earls will directly oppose one of the few Royals players to have any meaningful Super 14 experience in Deon van Rensburg and he maintains they won’t be underestimated.
‘Jamie is big and powerful – very different to me – so he’ll be a good person to play off.
‘We don’t know much of the Royals as a whole, but there are a couple of guys with Super 14 experience for the Cheetahs and Lions. They will be up for this, it’s their only chance in 12 years to play us.
‘I’ve seen a few clips of Deon and he looks explosive and is a strong-looking guy. We’re both in a similar position – it’s his chance to prove himself and it’s the same for me on the first match on tour.’
By Grant Ball, in Johannesburg