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England legend Dean Richards: 'I was wrong about Ben Earl'

By Jon Newcombe
Of the crossover athletes between 15-a-side and Sevens, Ben Earl is one player who could make a real difference in the shortened format (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Ben Earl has won over a sceptical Dean Richards with his form over the last 12 months, and the England legend couldn’t be happier at being proved wrong.

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Richards, a colossus at No.8 in the double Grand Slam-winning England side of the early 90s, initially doubted Earl’s technical ability to take control at the back of the pack.

But the Saracens man has been England’s standout performer over the last 12 months, with a string of fine performances across the Rugby World Cup and Six Nations, culminating in him being named England Men’s Player of the Year at the RPA awards.

Earl starts Saturday’s first Test of the summer against Japan in Tokyo, which is live and exclusive on RPTV, and is one of four vice-captains in the team.

“At the start of the World Cup I was unsure about Ben Earl, about whether he had the technical nous to play 8, not that there is much difference these days whereas years ago there was. But I am really pleased he has proved me wrong in very area,” Richards said.

“His work at the base of the scrum and his work in the maul as well were excellent. I am not sure about his lineout work but you can compensate for that, you don’t need to necessarily have that in your locker nowadays.

“I thought he was outstanding as the tournament went on, and we need three or four people like him.”

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Richards is also a big fan of Harlequins’ Chandler Cunningham-South, who gets his first England start at six, with Sam Underhill at seven and Earl at 8.

“I think he needs to get as much experience as he can under his belt,” he said about Cunningham-South, who wins his fifth cap for England.

Coincidentally, Richards’ fifth cap – he went on to make 48 for England and six for the Lions – came against Japan, too, although he was a year older than Cunningham-South, at 23 years of age.

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Richards got his name on the scoresheet as England ran in 10 tries to beat the Brave Blossoms 60-7 at the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987.

“We expected Japan to be exactly as they now in terms of their playing style and challenge us, and they did exactly that, despite the scoreline. They play a really exciting brand of rugby and we considered them to be a major threat so we never took our foot off the gas in our preparation,” he recalled.

“There was a bit of a shock in the first-half. I don’t think we were taken aback but we knew they would be innovative. There was no lifting in those days and because they were at a height disadvantage, they had to create advantages themselves by doing other things. It wasn’t an easy game, at all.”

England had a well-balanced back-row that day in Sydney, with Peter Winterbottom and Gary Rees on the flanks and Richards at 8.

“That was the same back-row as when I played my first international in ’86, so I knew both boys well, and I played with them and against them, and they just made me look good,” was his self-deprecating admission.

“They were two outstanding players, slightly different. Gary Rees was an incredibly talented footballer, as was Winters, but Winters also had a real edge about him.

“The older Peter got the more rounded he became as a footballer, and the better he became as a footballer. I think that goes with everybody, the more experience you get, the better you understand the game, and the more your skills develop. But none more so than Winters.

“Initially he was just considered to be a bit of a Sam Underhill type of player but he developed really quickly from ‘85/86 onwards. He was world-class.”

The back-row blend is something Richards is well-versed in, even though he is the first to admit the dynamic of the game has changed since he retired two years into professionalism.

“The game has changed and that balance that you have on the back row now doesn’t necessarily have to have height in it, but it has to have power and pace.

“If you are going to win a World Cup, you want a minimum of five, probably six, ball carriers in your pack. So each one of your back-row boys really has to be a ball carrier.”

For Richards, England’s trip to the other side of the world will be deemed a success if they beat Japan and draw the two-Test series against the All Blacks.

“It is actually quite a difficult tour. It is the end of season after a World Cup year. Two wins would be good, three would be outstanding.”

It is now two years since Richards left his role as Director of Rugby at Newcastle. But the former England captain has not been idle, and is back in rugby overseeing Tynedale RUFC’s rugby operation in a voluntary capacity.

Like his formidable former back-row colleague, Winterbottom, Richards has also been busying himself with plenty of charity work, raising money for the Matt Hampson Foundation, along with public speaking engagements and getting a new business venture off the ground.

Within two months of its launch, The Players Platform is close to reaching its target of sign-ups for the year.

Described by Richards as ‘Tinder for Rugby’ in an interview with The Daily Telegraph, The Players Platform is an app which connects players, coaches, analysts and physiotherapists with clubs and job opportunities around the world.

It encompasses all sports and is the brainchild of his son William,

“The response has been amazing,” 60-year-old Richards said.

“We’ve had people sign up from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and South America and various European countries including the UK.

“It’s in its infancy and we thought it would take a lot longer to get to where we’ve got to so far. It is certainly taking off and heading in the right direction.”

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