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Royal XV v British & Irish Lions
Earls relishing Lions bow
Graham Jenkins in Johannesburg
May 28, 2009
Keith Earls passes the ball during the British and Irish Lions training session, Pennyhill Park, Bagshot, England, May 19, 2009
Earls' stand-out year is set to break new ground this weekend when he makes his Lions debut © Getty Images
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Munster livewire Keith Earls is still coming to terms with his rapid rise to the top of the international game.

The talented 21-year-old, who only made his Ireland debut six months ago, has been handed an early opportunity to stake a claim for a much-prized British & Irish Lions Test jersey with a starting role in the elite tourists' opener against a Royal XV in Rustenberg on Saturday.

Head coach Ian McGeechan has selected a strong side for the clash at the Royal Bakofeng Stadium where nine players will make their Lions run-on debuts including the centre pairing of Earls, who is the youngest player on tour in South Africa, and 22-year-old Welsh centre Jamie Roberts.

"I didn't even have an Irish cap at the end of last season," said an amazed Earls at the team announcement in Johannesburg earlier today. "It's my first professional season and I was just hoping to get a few starts with Munster. I had a couple of good games in the Magners League and got a few starts in the Heineken Cup but not in a million years did I think I would be on a Lions tour."

But Earls, who made his international bow against Canada in November and took only three minutes to register his first try, is relishing the challenge of the invitational side and the chance to partner the strong-running Roberts.

"Obviously Jamie will be a bit different to Mafi [Munster team-mate Lifeimi Mafi]. Jamie's a big powerful player and it will be great to play off him and I'm looking forward to it. We've gelled well the last couple of weeks and I'm just looking forward to getting out there."

Earls has featured at fullback and wing for his provincial employers but latterly he has made the outside centre berth his own following a long-term injury to Rua Tipoki. His versatility was rewarded by Ireland coach, and his former Munster boss, Declan Kidney and McGeechan was also soon converted.

However, despite his undoubted versatility the rising star is keen to avoid what could be a career-hampering reputation.

"This is still my first season and I'm still learning," he insists. "I haven't really nailed down a position. Tony McGahan obviously sees me having a career at fullback as well as centre but with Rua getting injured I got a chance at 13.

"I don't really want to become known as a utility back - I want to be a 13 or a 15, that's it. But I'll play anywhere for my country, for Munster or even the Lions. I just hope I don't get that utility tag next to my name."

Skipper Paul O'Connell, who will lead the side on Saturday, revealed during today's press conference that his Munster team-mate, as the youngest Lion on tour, currently finds himself in charge of their famous mascot. However, Earls is keen to relinquish his duties with 'Lenny' the Lion and has pinpointed the return of Wales' 20-year-old Leigh Halfpenny next week.

"I think the Lion is sleeping at the moment," he told reporters with a smile when asked as to its whereabouts and the possibility of a fine. "I didn't want to disturb him. I think I just have to bring him to training and a couple of functions where the team are going to be. Being the youngest I have to carry the Lion, but Leigh has recovered from his injury and should be out early next week and then I can see me handing over Lenny."

Earls was happy to exonerate his captain following the disclosure - such is his respect for the giant lock.

"Everyone has a player that they look up to and they admire and Paul was the first professional rugby player I got to know as I was growing up," said Earls, whose father Ger also played alongside O'Connell with Young Munster. "The way he acts, both on and off the pitch, is brilliant. He is the Lions captain, he's one of the best players in the world but he doesn't let anything go to his head, he just keeps his feet on he ground."

O'Connell was also in generous mood. "Keith is a very laid-back kind of guy," he said. "He is quiet, unassuming, very modest and eager to learn. He has something special. He has great pace, he is very elusive with a great step and feint. He is all you would want."

Earls and his Lions team-mates are wary of the unknown factor surrounding the Royal XV but have been doing there homework.

"We don't know too much about the players but we've seen a few clips of their players who have played Super 14 with the Lions and the Cheetahs. It's an invitational team and these lads only get a chance to play against the Lions every 12 years so they are going to be up for it."

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