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Earls' latest injury a worrying sign for all concerned

Munster and Irish rugby face an anxious wait as 22-year-old Keith Earls, is scheduled to undergo a scan on his ankle injury next Monday.

The Ireland international sustained the injury during a Munster training session last Monday in a non-contact situation and, while the initial X-ray thankfully showed no break, the level of swelling means further examination cannot take place until early next week.

The bulk of the Irish rugby media were in Cardiff on Tuesday for the launch of the Magners League season when news began to filter through of Earls' latest setback -- and concern was not helped by misleading reports regarding the serious nature of the incident and where it had occurred.

A year away from the World Cup, Earls' importance to Irish rugby cannot be overstated. The game's seemingly ceaseless tinkering with rules and interpretations over the past few seasons has led to a less structured brand of rugby and a game where players blessed with Earls' ability to conjure avenues out of apparent dead-ends are invaluable.

Since first making his mark with Munster a couple of seasons ago, Earls has proven to be a genuine game-breaker. With the ability to play wing, centre and full-back, Earls is a major part of Declan Kidney's World Cup plans.

Luke Fitzgerald's return to fitness is good news for the national coach, as was Andrew Trimble's excellent form on Ireland's difficult summer tour, but Kidney will want Earls available for the World Cup, as his spark could prove critical in the decisive pool game against Australia -- just as Quade Cooper's was for the Wallabies in their narrow victory last June.

Thus, the worry surrounding his latest injury. For a player whose international career could still be described as 'fledgling', another body-blow just as he was making his way back from the groin problem that precluded an opportunity to take on Cooper and co in Brisbane is the last thing anybody needed.

The nature of that groin injury meant Earls had to be micro-managed last season, a one-week on, one-week off situation designed to provide sufficient recovery and protection. As well as the groin and ankle injuries, Earls has also had to battle problems with his shoulder in his short career -- notably when an enormous South African prop fell on him in the Lions tour opener against the Royal XV last year.

Injuries have been part and parcel of rugby, but they have become increasingly prevalent as the game has broken new ground in terms of physical size and attrition.

Ankle sprains are among the top five rugby injuries, together with hamstring strains, head injuries, clavicular joint sprains and thumb dislocations, while it is also common for players to hurt themselves in summer training through a combination of hard grounds and pre-season eagerness.

It should be the fervent hope of Irish rugby fans that Earls' career does not continue to be characterised by time on the treatment table and that he has a sustained run of fitness.