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Saracens loans a win/win

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Ben Earl and Max Malins to Bristol Bears is a rare sporting 'win/win'

The Saracens end-of-season exodus continued apace on Friday, as the club confirmed that Ben Earl and Max Malins would be spending the 2020/21 season on loan to Bristol Bears, after having agreed new long-term contracts to keep them at Allianz Park beyond that.

The news that the duo have committed their futures to the club will please Saracens fans, even if it is tinged with disappointment that the pair will not be helping them return to the Gallagher Premiership at first time of asking following the club’s relegation to the Greene King IPA Championship.

With Liam Williams having already returned to Wales and the likes of George Kruis, Will Skelton and Nick Tompkins reported to be leaving for pastures new at the end of the campaign, the temporary losses of Earl and Malins are palatable, especially with the pair eyeing international honours next season, as well as potentially putting their names in the mix for the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 2021.

They are likely to be joined by some of Saracens’ other young stars, such as Nick Isiekwe and Jack Singleton, players who have not done enough yet to establish themselves in Eddie Jones’ England squad and for whom a season in the Championship is unlikely to further their causes of being involved at the highest level. For players such as Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Jamie George, believed to be staying at the club, their stock with Jones is much higher and they possess a leverage the likes of Earl and Malins simply do not have yet.

For anyone who has been watching over the past decade, the rise to prominence of Saracens’ academy has been one of the more influential factors behind England’s successes during that period. The club has become a production line for top-tier international players, particularly in the pack, and it has been one of the driving forces behind neutral rugby fans moving on from the critiques of the club being powered by South African ‘mercenaries’ and instead celebrating them for their success domestically and in Europe.

Of course, with the recent revelations over the club’s salary cap infringements, that productivity has not been able to completely escape the taint of the advantages the club were able to illegally give themselves, either. It’s a lot easier to integrate talented youngsters into a squad filled to the brim with international quality players who are inevitably winning week after week. Whether or not the club would still have had that productivity without some of these star players on board at the time is impossible to answer.

That said, it should not detract from the work that Saracens’ academy has done on the pathway in their region and, whilst having the luxury of rugby breeding grounds as fertile as Kent, Essex and Hertfordshire, the efforts moulding rounded, balanced and mature rugby players at the age of 18 has been very impressive. The club’s willingness to involve these players and continue to keep developing them post-18 has also stood out amongst their rivals in the Premiership.

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The players, externally at least, seem to almost seamlessly step up to the Saracens senior side, to the point that they have been capped by England before they have even established themselves as first choice options at club level. It may not hold the stock it once did in the hearts of rugby neutrals, but Saracens’ ‘wolfpack’ mentality, their line-speed, decision-making and physicality and work rate on the pitch, has proven to be a potent environment for these youngsters to be immersed into and to take their games to the next level.

The loans to Bristol of Earl and Malins will now give a very rare glimpse into how these players, moulded in Saracens’ image but very much still young and developing talents, cope in a different culture where different demands will be asked of them on the pitch. As case studies go, Pat Lam’s Bristol side is perhaps the most exciting setting for this experiment to play out.

Saracens are not the defence-focused or ’10-man rugby’ side of yesteryear. Their attack is as clinical as any side in Europe bar, perhaps, Leinster, and if you don’t have the skill set to contribute to that, chances are you won’t be making Saracens’ matchday 23 each week. The club is, however, still more risk-adverse than Bristol, whose high-octane style has won plaudits from all over the world in recent years.

Given Earl’s mobility and eagerness to find space with the ball in hand, and Malins’ vision and comfort as a ball-handler, they are perhaps the two Saracens most-suited to this move and whose transition to Bristol, you would think, should be relatively seamless. The thought of Earl packing down alongside Steven Luatua and Nathan Hughes in the Bristol back row, whilst Malins slots in with Charles Piutau and Semi Radradra, is enough to make even the staunchest of rugby purist sit up in their seat.

Past evidence, although limited, suggests the pair should continue to flourish after leaving that Saracens environment. After all, Singleton prospered at Worcester Warriors, eventually earning himself a move back to the capital, whilst Nathan Earle, before injury derailed his season, was flying on the wing for Harlequins. Generally, though, these high-end talents aren’t allowed out of north London.

If Lam can add a wrinkle or two to the pair’s games, Saracens will welcome them back in 2021 as even more complete players than the ones who are set to depart the club this summer. If you have to spend a year paying your dues in the tough and uncompromising environment of the Championship, a more confident and developed Earl and Malins coming back in is quite the welcome back present, providing the club do not fall foul of the mighty Ealing Trailfinders.

Likewise, if Earl and Malins can instil some of Saracens’ resoluteness and mental strength into a Bristol side that is still developing under Lam’s tutelage, the moves will be celebrated as one of those rarest things in professional sports – a win/win for both clubs involved. There’s plenty of rugby intellectual property for Bristol to mine out of these two during their season-long stint down the M4.

If Isiekwe ends up at Sale and Singleton makes the move to Gloucester, they will encounter environments that test and benefit them in different ways, though as far as fits for Earl and Malins go, there doesn’t seem to be a better option out there than Bristol. The club from the south-west simply plays in a fashion that will get the very best out of these two exciting playmakers.

With the Guinness Six Nations coming to an unsatisfactory, albeit understandable, conclusion due to the Coronavirus outbreak and a seemingly dull inevitability to the top and bottom of the Premiership this campaign, does anyone else just want to fast-forward to next season?

Watch: Don’t Mess with Jim – Six Nations paywall

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Ben Earl and Max Malins to Bristol Bears is a rare sporting 'win/win'
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