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Charlie Ewels: 'That’s my role, to beat Maro in those little battles'

By Jon Newcombe
Charlie Ewels (left) at England training with Maro Itoje (Photo by Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

Charlie Ewels has been at Bath for almost half his life, having joined the club as a 15-year-old. Until recently, the only way 29-year-old Ewels knew was the Bath way, whatever the Bath way was, as it had become increasingly difficult to fathom in the years preceding Johann van Graan’s arrival as head of rugby.

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However, the serious knee injury Ewels suffered while preparing for England’s series against Australia in the summer of 2022 gave him a window of opportunity to take stock, try something new by going away on loan to the Bulls in South Africa and, ultimately, redefining himself as a player.

“You don’t get to time your injuries, do you, but it probably came at a good time with hindsight in the greater context of my career,” explained the Bournemouth-born Ewels, who spent his formative years at The Rec being mentored by Bath legend and known hard man Danny Grewcock.

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“I was 27. I literally did it on my 27th birthday, so I will never forget my 27th birthday. I reckon I’d been playing quite consistently since I was 19. At that point I’d had 140 games for the club, 30 caps for England, and a few other games in and around this, so maybe 200 games of men’s rugby at 27.

“The Kiwis get to do a sabbatical without getting injured and I kind of saw the injury as a sabbatical in my career, the chance to step away from the game a little bit and go and get that hunger and freshness back and remind yourself why you do these things.

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“I knew I was going to be out for a year, and I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to go and train with some of the best people in the world around athletic ability.

“I got the win-win situation in that I didn’t have to leave the club that I feel extremely strongly about and where I have been since I was a boy, but I also got to go and experience another environment on the other side of the world.

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“I got to meet some new people, meet new coaches, see a different way of playing rugby, got to work with Jake White, who is a World Cup-winning coach.”

This season the second-rower has arguably been in the form of his life, better than when he was earning 30 England caps, better than when he was being red-carded against Ireland at Twickenham in 2022, and better than when he was captain of Stuart Hooper’s sinking ship.

It all came to light in another tremendous performance in Bath’s vital 26-14 win over Exeter in the Premiership last weekend. Long gone are the hold-your-breath moments when supporters feared the worst whenever he went into a tackle or a ruck.

The new Ewels is more disciplined and more athletic as demonstrated by his 30-metre burst from a lineout which led to Ben Spencer’s opportunist score at Sandy Park.

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The only hatchet job, as far as the remodelled Ewels is concerned, is his new haircut. Shaved at the sides and left long at the back, he would fit right at home at the Chiefs, whether that is the Devon or New Zealand variety.

The soft-shoe shuffle that stood up Exeter’s last defender for the Spencer try, followed by the Haka-like expression on his face, was also All Black-esque in appearance.

“I haven’t found myself in that much space very often, so it was more just panic than anything else,” he joked, referencing the shift in approach that started during his extended time on the sidelines.

“I believe that the game is getting quicker and it’s getting lower – from the tackle rules but also the height at which people carry and the height you have to be to be effective at the breakdown – and I needed to adapt to that.

“As a 6ft 6ins, not very quick bloke, I thought, I’m going to have to learn how to get a bit lower and learn how to get a bit quicker. They were two big focuses of the rehab.

“I can promise you I had no genetic advantage at the start, so this is solely training and a bit of hard work. It is always a work in progress, and I still need to be lower and I still need to be more effective.

“I want to be able to repeat those efforts more. If you look at the best players in the world when you think of powerful players, they are powerful in minute one and they are still powerful in minute 80.”

Returning to a winning team has made Ewels’ Premiership reintroduction this season more enjoyable, and maybe having the burden of captaincy lifted has helped, too.

Ewels is full of praise for how Spencer is leading Bath by example, making a promise to himself to enjoy every time he gets to pull on the blue, black and white jersey.

“I was desperate to get back playing for Bath again. I’ll never forget we played Northampton in the Prem Cup. It had been 18 months for me between games for Bath and I just remember I had all those feelings inside of, ‘I missed this so much, this is so special, you have done it so many times before, but this one feels different’.

“I’ve just tried to carry that through the season – thinking to myself, don’t forget that feeling, don’t forget how good that felt and how good it is to be back playing here again.”

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Playing in front of over 14,000 fans under the lights at The Rec in a crunch Premiership game this Friday night is the gladiatorial occasion that Ewels missed while going through the mill.

It also serves as an unofficial England trial as Ewels will be coming up against Saracens’ Maro Itoje, whom he knows well through playing age-grade rugby together and also during their time with England, most recently at this year’s Six Nations.

While Itoje didn’t miss a single minute of the 2024 Six Nations, Ewels never got the chance to put to bed the disappointing incident that overshadowed his last Test outing – the dangerous tackle on James Ryan that saw Mathieu Raynal reach inside his pocket with barely a minute gone against Ireland in March 2022.

“At the moment my last game for England ended after 84 seconds with a red card so I am desperate to try and play at least one more,” he said.

“When you are young and get capped for the first time it is all a bit of a blur, everything’s great and your career is on this upward trajectory. Now I understand what it takes, and what it is going to take (to get back in); the competition for my position is extremely high.

“Maro is a brilliant player, a wonderful player, someone who I have played age-group stuff together since we were 15 years old, so I know him very well.

“Obviously, I have just spent some time with him in the latest Six Nations camp training against him so he is a brilliant player and one of the best in the world, so that’s my role this weekend – to try and beat Maro in those little battles.”

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A post shared by Charlie Ewels (@charlieewels1)

Whoever wins those little battles may well win the war and put their team one step closer to reaching the end-of-season play-offs. Ewels can’t wait to get stuck in.

“We haven’t been at home for a while, not since the Sale game, and it will be very nice to be back. It’s never lost on me as a player that people want to come out and cheer for us. Those were the same people cheering for us two years ago when things weren’t going so well, and we were losing so hopefully we can put on a show and get a result for those guys.

“People talk about Saracens under-performing but their whole team have been there and done it before and they have some of the best players in the league and some of the best players in the world, so we know what is coming.

“If you’re serious about winning the competition you have to test yourselves against the best, and Saracens are the best.”

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