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Ben Earl can become England’s Ardie Savea... if they let him

By Josh Raisey
Ben Earl of England looks on in the tunnel after the Rugby World Cup France 2023 Bronze Final match between Argentina and England at Stade de France on October 27, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Adam Pretty - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Few players can rival the rise England’s Ben Earl has experienced this year.

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Of course, there is the World Rugby breakthrough player of the year award, but what makes this rise so curious is that Earl is not a breakthrough. After all, he made his Test debut in February 2020.

He has been an ever-present force on the club scene for years now, and was named the Gallagher Premiership Player of the Season in 2022, but it never quite clicked on the Test stage.

Video Spacer

England post-match presser – third-place play-off

Video Spacer

England post-match presser – third-place play-off

At best under Eddie Jones he was a substitute (earning all 13 caps under the Australian from the bench), at worst he was completely ousted from England camps and spent two years in international exile.

Steve Borthwick’s appointment at the end of 2022 provided new hope for the 25-year-old, but he found himself in the all too familiar position of the bench for the first two rounds of the 2023 Six Nations before missing out on the final three rounds completely.

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His luck changed in the World Cup warm-ups though. A combination of an ankle injury to Tom Curry and a suspension to Billy Vunipola meant there was a vacancy in both the No7 and No8 jerseys during August. Though it was not an August to remember for England, Earl started in the final three matches at openside flanker and then No8 and impressed enough to warrant a starting berth for the opening match of the World Cup against Argentina in the No8 jersey- one that might well have been worn by Vunipola had he not still been serving his ban.

Come England’s final match of the World Cup, the bronze final against Argentina again, there was absolutely no question who deserved to have the No8 emblazoned on their back. Earl went from a player that was known more for his exuberant celebrations to one that let his playing do all the talking come the end of the World Cup, as he exhibited his all-court game. Not many players from any country had a better campaign than the Saracen, let alone from England.

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He dominated the stats for England in all areas of the field. He made the most carries for his team with 64, significantly more than second place Fredde Steward’s 46. He topped England’s tackle count as well with 80 tackles, 18 more than second place Maro Itoje. Throw in a fair few turnovers and the most clean breaks in an England shirt, seven, and that is an all-action star of the pack. Not a bad way to end the year for a erstwhile bench warmer.

Bizarrely, it is not Earl’s performances that make him so important for England, rather it is what he represents.

England seemingly watched the entire rugby landscape evolve over the past four years while doing little to nothing to keep up. Ruck speed became the aim of the game in the club and international stage, but England apparently did not receive that memo.

The quarter-finals between Ireland and New Zealand, and France and South Africa seemed like a different sport at times to the other two quarter-finals, as England’s ruck speed was significantly slower than the top nations.

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This change in tempo is embodied by the evolution in No8s. The traditional specialist No8 is slowly being replaced by hybrid flanker-No8s, who offer dynamism with ball in hand and a high workrate off the ball to match a high tempo game. The All Blacks’ newly crowned World Rugby player of the year Ardie Savea represents this new breed perfectly, who, weighing around 100kg, is a far cry from a specialist No8 at around 120kg. But he is not the only player by any stretch.

Savea – a flanker turned No8 – was joined by Ireland’s Caelan Doris – another flanker turned No8 weighing slightly heavier than the Kiwi – in the back row of World Rugby’s dream team this week. Both players are the new breed of No8 and are manifestations of the direction rugby is going.

For too long England selected No8s that did not mirror the way that rugby was going. The very fact that Sam Simmonds barely made any impression under Jones perhaps shows that the explosive forward was only out of place in a team that were in turn out of place in contemporary rugby. Earl is not too dissimilar to Simmonds, but has eventually emerged as a starter.

In Earl, England have their own Ardie Savea. A similar build and another flanker turned No8 that is associated more with his pace and mobility than weight and robustness. It is their ticket to the top table. With Earl at No8, it is a sign of how they intend to play- the antithesis of the ponderous rugby they have been guilty of. Borthwick has consistently emphasised that England’s tactics at the World Cup were ad hoc and a result of his lack of time with the squad, so an attacking improvement is expected and needed going forward. A back row of Sam Underhill, Curry and Earl for England’s bronze final was perhaps a glimpse of a high-tempo game that is to come.

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So while Earl can become an emblem of a ‘new England’ under Borthwick, his World Cup stats stand up to Savea’s as well.

The pair spent almost as much time on the pitch as each other, with Earl playing 493 minutes compared to Savea’s 463. The All Black made 82 carries (the most at the RWC) compared to Earl’s 64, but the Englishman made 80 tackles (the second most at the RWC) compared to Savea’s 56. So when combining both tackles and carries, both players come out about even. The mismatch is probably an indication of how much ball the All Blacks had compared to England, and how much Borthwick’s side prioritised defence.

In other areas, both players matched up well and were tit-for-tat. In attack, Earl made 37 more metres (336) and two more line breaks (seven), while Savea beat two more defenders (27). Earl had slightly better tackle evasion percentage and carry dominance percentage, while Savea shaded him in gainline success. What’s clear is the pair are well match with ball in hand. Savea also made 82 attacking rucks compared to Earl’s 78.

Defensively Earl got through more work, but Savea made two more dominant tackles (five) and hit 57 defensive rucks compared to Earl’s 28. That is one of the greatest discrepancies between the two. At the breakdown, both had some vital interventions across the tournament as well, as Savea won four turnovers to Earl’s three.

The glaring difference is maybe Savea’s three tries and four assists to Earl’s solitary try. Then again, the All Blacks scored 49 tries at the World Cup to England’s measly 21. Attacking rugby is part of their DNA (which also explains why Savea made more offloads than Earl) and tries are therefore easier to come by.

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Earl is not quite at Savea’s level yet, but those are promising signs as he becomes established as a Test starter. Savea is the doyen of modern No8s, and like Earl has transformed from a flanker into that role. The 30-year-old is the All Blacks’ talisman and the best player in the world because he influences almost all aspects of a game. Those stats show that Earl has that potential too, he just needs to be given the keys to run riot. It is a peek at the future for England, but it is imperative they do not revert back to their old ways.

The strangest thing of all is that the 25-cap international does not necessarily have to start for England. He is undoubtedly the incumbent No8 heading into the Six Nations, but with Billy Vunipola still in the picture and the likes of Zach Mercer, Alex Dombrandt, Tom Willis and Alfie Barbeary all waiting in the wings, there is no guarantee he will hold onto the white No8 jersey solidly for the next four years. What is important is that the player who does wear it brings the same style as he does.

If there is to be a much needed stylistic sea change with England, Borthwick needs to build his game around certain individuals and Earl probably tops that list with his exciting style. Where England have fallen short in the past though is that they have become too reliant on some players with no plan of action if they are missing. Earl represents how England should strive to play, so any player wearing that No8 shirt should embody that too.

Earl was England’s player of the World Cup, but what should excite fans the most is not that a potential world-class talent has emerged, but he signifies England’s step into the modern age.

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2 Comments
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Gerald 258 days ago

While Earls has done really well against a few sides this year, to justify what you state he needs to consistently perform against the top 5. Why do England write up their guys so quickly and set them up for failure. Kwagga is an example of someone with 2 WC medals, years of performance against top sides, top performing 7 s player and consistently impacts games. Earls has potential, so wait until he has done this again the top 5 sides for a few seasons.

B
Bob Marler 262 days ago

If Kwagga Smith started regularly - ahead of Vermeulen and Wiese - he’d be hailed as the best modern day no. 6/7/8 in the world. Fact.

He can tackle. He can score tries. He can fetch. He can cover the wing and center. He can probably run the 100 in under 13 secs. He’s a shithouse. Player of the year in the Japanese League. World 7s player of the year once upon a time. Gold medalist. A machine.

Can someone write an article about him please? The man is a rare phenomenon. And a great template for a back rower of the future.

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Tim 1 hours ago
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