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Ben Earl: 'I probably wasn’t fit enough to play international rugby'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

It’s mad to think that a bit-part player unceremoniously dumped by Steve Borthwick from the England squad during this year’s Guinness Six Nations is now viewed as indispensable just eight months later. Ben Earl was squeezed out of the international rugby reckoning last February after winning all 15 of his caps as a replacement and it was feared that could be it for the 25-year-old’s Test career.

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It wasn’t. “Steve has been very honest with me about what it would take to play for England and hopefully I’m starting to make some steps in those directions,” he initially teased when interviewed during his country’s last full day at their Le Touquet-Paris-Plage base camp on before their Thursday afternoon trip to Lille ahead of Saturday’s pool finale versus Samoa.

A tangent followed, plenty of questions about the newly inked Saracens deal he described as a “no-brainer” and about the general health of the Gallagher Premiership. But he eventually got back around to shedding light on how a talent so publicly rejected after a pair of short-lived runs off the Twickenham bench last spring is now at the heart of his country’s Rugby World Cup campaign.

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So good has Earl been as an England starter that numerous fans believed he should have been voted player of the match against Argentina and Japan, not George Ford. What gives? “I guess on reflection I probably wasn’t fit enough to play international rugby when I first came into that Six Nations squad last February,” he revealed when prompted to provide some insight on the difference that exists between the now and back then Ben Earl.

“I felt like I was (fit) and then kind of the game Steve wanted us to play required a different level of fitness as a back-rower. That was probably my big takeaway. After that Six Nations, I had what two-and-a-half, three months to really get my head down and focus on that.

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A post shared by Ben Earl (@benearl7)

“I felt being a little bit fitter allowed me to play better and I probably felt like I played my best rugby of the season in and around the Premiership final where kind of everything was starting to come together. Yeah, that was the big work on.

“He [Borthwick] wants us as back-rowers to run and you look at the team Leicester were when they won the Premiership (in 2022 under Borthwick), you look at the best performances we have had as England under his regime, it has been when the back row has been at the forefront of the game.

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“It has been when we have squeezed teams, we have almost grown into the game more from quarter one to the last quarter. We talk a lot about that and we feel like we are the fittest we have been, we feel like we are in the best condition we have been so hopefully that improves as the tournament goes on and we start closing games out at the right time.”

What’s the secret to becoming fitter? “It’s not just something you do on your own. We are really lucky, really blessed at Saracens to have some great guys. You don’t just become fitter by running, there are ways of going about it.

“You are obviously trying to manage workload with playing most weeks, so it’s probably a mental and physical change I have done. You can sometimes convince yourself that you have nothing left and you always have a little more, so that is something I have had to make some fine tweaks on and I think hopefully it is starting to bear fruition now.”

From here, the conversation with Earl branched out neatly with a follow-up question enquiring about his use of the phrase “quarter” and whether purposely breaking the game down into four sections rather than first and second halves was a current England tactic aimed at getting the best from them at this tournament.

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“It’s not something we think about as players,” he admitted. “It’s something when we are talking about teams, Steve talks a lot about defensive intensity in the second half, trends in the game, he is such a great thinker on the game and where international rugby is going that it just raises awareness about that and then we as players start talking about it.

“We are a little bit more aware. It’s not something we think about but it’s something if Steve mentions in a meeting you start thinking, ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense. That’s why that works, that’s why that didn’t maybe work’. It’s not something we think about but it’s starting to become a little bit more of a trend in the game.”

Team Form

Last 5 Games

3
Wins
1
1
Streak
3
13
Tries Scored
12
-5
Points Difference
13
2/5
First Try
0/5
2/5
First Points
1/5
1/5
Race To 10 Points
2/5

What convinces England is the knowledge Borthwick steels his instructions with. “Steve will rarely say something without backing it up with some sort of data and that is why I think it is brilliant, he is never going to give you an opinion without some evidence,” enthused Earl, his team’s starting No8 in their opening two matches at France 2023 and an impressive finisher off the bench against Chile the last day.

“You have started to see maybe a slightly different England team from the one at the start of the Six Nations and a large chunk of that would be down to our conditioning. Aled Walters has been brilliant since we have come in and some players were saying the other day they have been in for 16, 17 weeks now and been exposed to Aled’s training that long.

“Wow, it can only be good for our team, and then some of us coming in a little bit later, I felt the effects very early on in our warm-up and our warm-up games. I can only say that is something that is definitely the case. We are definitely fitter as a whole and probably where we were when we finished off the Six Nations.”

England’s improved fitness has been reflected in their improved discipline as just 15 penalties were conceded in their first two-and-a-half matches at the World Cup. Something went awry in their nine-penalty second half versus the Chileans, though, a reminder that they need to keep on top of their behaviour if they are to reach Paris and make it through to an October 21 semi-final.

“Penalty count is very good,” beamed Earl, who for example bounced back from a couple of individual concessions in Nice to star as the game developed against the Japanese. “It’s something we speak a lot about in our meetings, in our previews, reviews.

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“Sometimes we have targets of the numbers of penalties we want to be under and one of Steve’s big things is if you don’t let teams into your 22 through penalties or turnovers, we’re beginning to look like a very hard team to beat. That is a big focus of ours and we know that by stopping teams from getting into our 22 via penalties or three points, we are going to be tough to beat.

“We had referees in a lot in our warm-up games,” he added. “Steve has a good dialogue with most matchday referees so yeah, it’s something that we as a team are heavily involved in but you know with Steve he is working hard behind the scenes and stuff like that.

“It’s just heightened awareness. You’re talking about some of the greatest players that have played the game in terms of some of our team. They already know but it’s about having that heightened awareness as a collective, as 15, as a 23, as a 33, and it’s something we practice in training.

“We get pinged for offsides in training, get pinged for off-feet breakdowns in training, slow to the breakdown in training. All of a sudden by the time you get to the game it is second nature and again you are beginning to see some of that starting to shine through in our game. Hopefully, we are keeping that figure down. That’s definitely had a positive correlation to our results.”

Competition for back row places has stepped up this week with Tom Curry, England’s third-minute red card against the Pumas, available for selection with his ban now expired. “Tom has been brilliant, one of the best trainers I have seen and that’s why he has got high 40s, nearly 50 caps for his country, and will go on to make many more,” cheered Earl.

“In terms of playing with him, I have played with him since I was 15. We know each other’s games very well. We haven’t played together a huge amount over the last couple of years but he has got an all-action game, there is probably not a weak part of his game.

“He is one of the best trainers, he has been champing at the bit to be involved and he has been very supportive of us who have been playing in terms of preparing the team and whatnot. If he gets the nod this weekend, I’m really looking forward to (seeing him) go and cause some havoc. He’s one of the best players in the world when he is on song and hopefully, we see a lot more of that over the next couple of weeks.”

Whenever it ends, Earl will return to Saracens satisfied that his long-term club future was resolved during England’s World Cup pool break. “Very pleased to stay where I have grown up playing rugby and love playing rugby,” he said. “It’s all on Docusign, it’s dead easy nowadays. Just a few calls now and again with my agent trying to paper out a few bits. We were never that far away, it was just more details and whatnot.

“You never shut that door (on playing elsewhere). I guess it is a lot easier to move abroad if you are not playing for England. If you are not in the picture sometimes it can be nice to have a change of scene. Thankfully, at the moment I’m playing for England so that made my decision for me.”

So too his belief in the Premiership as a business despite the competition harrowingly losing three clubs in the last year. “I can’t speak on the financial state of the league as a whole but what I can say is that the people at Saracens, the people here (in France) have been very positive about the way the game is going.

“I mean, boys on Tuesday night were making their fantasy Premiership teams so that’s always a good step in the right direction, getting a bit of fanfare around that kind of stuff. Look, we are hearing good things about the plans over the next couple of years for the league, the salary cap stuff, commercial stuff, so we are already seeing some small changes and that can only be a good thing,” he said, going to explain the repeated reassurances given at Saracens after Worcester, Wasps and London Irish all folded.

“Saracens turned around the first one went, after the second one went, after the third one went and kept saying we are fully committed to the club, we are fully committed to the vision we have got of where the club needs to go. I guess that is all we can go on. The people that run Sarries aren’t ones that tend to mince their words too much and obviously, we have been through some tough times and they have stuck with us, so you have got to believe them in that sense.

“Hopefully I have shown you [the media] in the past I’m not one to say what I think everyone wants to hear. I do genuinely think sitting here in France watching people coming out from England watching England, it’s just incredible. That Argentina game, the Japan game felt like home games for us.

“That’s a good small sample size in terms of where the game is at in England. People just want to see their teams do well, they want to see a good brand. We, as a playing group, if we can get on board with some of the stuff the management is doing,

“I definitely think there have been times where players have shut themselves off from the commercial side of the game and we as a bit of a younger generation in terms of coming through and taking on the mantle of the league, we have got to be a bit more open to doing some stuff and putting ourselves out there.

“We have had some talks with the league, we have had some talks with Simon (Massie-Taylor), Premiership Rugby. We’re asking for a bit more, they’re asking for a bit more, so everyone is willing, everyone is saying the right things, so that is a step in the right direction.”

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3 Comments
J
Jon 254 days ago

A very fine player in a very fine back row. I’m beginning to get some hope now for England prospects in this WC.

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