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Welsh rugby enveloped in its latest existential crisis

As Wayne Pivac teeters on the edge of finding new gainful employment after a series of disappointing results, the wider-lens story tells of dysfunction and frustration

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'I was, 'Why me, why does this keep happening to me?' It was pretty tough'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Juan Gasparini/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In the end, the mischief-making fixture schedulers didn’t get their way on this opening weekend of the new Gallagher Premiership campaign. It was a quite devilish thing to do, pitting defending champions Harlequins away at a Newcastle team that had signed Mike Brown and Nathan Earle from the Londoners. However, they couldn’t legislate for the cruel influence of injury, Brown getting sidelined with a rib issue sustained in a friendly last weekend and Earle yet to get going due to a hamstring niggle. 


As much a disappointment it is not to see Brown going at it against former employers whom he feels unjustly released him, it’s also a pity that Earle hasn’t been quickly able to hit the ground running at Falcons and remind Harlequins fans he can still play to great effect. 

When he first skipped in the door at the Stoop in 2018, he did so with a burgeoning reputation not to be sniffed at. There were trophies with Saracens, fringe but uncapped involvement with England and heaps of potential about just how good a player he could become. 

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Mike Brown picks out some of the Gallagher Premiership’s best young players
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Mike Brown picks out some of the Gallagher Premiership’s best young players

He very much looked the part early doors but then came the show-stopping injuries, a horrible ACL tear that cost him more than a year while another leg problem last December put the kibosh on his efforts last term, Earle finding himself pushed way down the pecking order by the likes of Louis Lynagh and Tyrone Green who flourished in his absence. 

It was early July when he was unveiled as a Newcastle signing but he had decided long before that his future was best served away from Harlequins, Earle dotting the Is and crossing the Ts on his Falcons deal in April. He had options abroad, with Perpignan a prominent link, but a straight-shooting conversation with Dean Richards, the birth of his first child and prior familiarity with the English north-east convinced him the next two years of his life would be best lived by the banks of the Tyne.

Gosforth is where the Earles have set up shop and while a debut has yet to happen, the early indications are that the switch can work out swimmingly well. “My little brother and best mate have both spent a lot of time in Newcastle and we have just had a little baby boy and speaking to the missus, she wasn’t quite ready to go abroad yet,” explained Earle to RugbyPass. “I chose to leave Harlequins and it made sense for us to go somewhere I knew pretty well and I think she will get on pretty well up here as well.


“We’re living in the city in a spot called Gosforth, there are a few boys in and around there so it’s good, you can get out to the coffee shops etc, bring the dogs, bring the babies. Newcastle made the most sense. I looked at the group of players they have got and if you have a hard-nosed pack of forwards that want to work and hit hard, you are going to be difficult to play against and if you add a bit of stardust, usually good things happen.

“Newcastle have that in abundance. Adam Radwan is one of the most exciting players I have seen coming out of any team really. They had a lot of close games last year and with Brownie and a few other players coming in, we can hopefully turn over some of those close losses into close wins because it is a strong group of players and they have a really good pack of forwards. We will have a really good crack at it this year.

“Newcastle is always a tough game, regardless of whether they were close to the bottom of the table or not. Going away to Newcastle was never an easy thing to do and they have been known to be a tough team to play, a niggly team to play. It’s not a team you enjoy playing against because you know what you are getting. You never go in thinking this is a cheap win because even if they are close to the bottom they are always hard. 

Dean was just honest with me. With some Premiership DoRs, it’s hard to have honest chats because it is hard to keep everyone happy. I understand their job is difficult, they have got a 50-man squad and they have got to try and make sure everyone is going in the same direction and no one is bringing the team down. So are obviously going to say what you want to hear but Dean was just straightforward with me. I’d a good honest chat with him and I was like, ‘Okay, he seems like someone I can get behind, he is someone I could respect’. He made it pretty easy to make the decision.”


Adding to the allure of Newcastle for Earle was their artificial surface at Kingston Park. It’s a type of pitch where visiting players don’t queue to cheer but for someone who thrives on a fast track, the possibilities in Earle’s mind are endless. “Funnily enough I have never been injured on a 4G pitch so to get back on one I was thinking maybe it was a bit of a good omen,” he enthused. 

“Hopefully I can string some games together and stay fit. We want to play an exciting brand of rugby and a pitch like ours should see us able to play some fast free-flowing rugby because we are going to have a good surface at every time of the year. Irrelevant of the weather we should be able to play some decent rugby. Some of the grass pitches towards the end of the season looked pretty haggard.”

Earle exited Harlequins for Newcastle with a title medal, five appearances enough to ensure he was recognised post the final win over Exeter which he watched from the Twickenham stands. It’s a gesture he is grateful for and despite having plenty of reason to moan about how his three-year spell with the Londoners was frustrating, having a whinge simply isn’t his style.

“Regardless of where I am, I’m going to try and be a good influence on the squad and bring people up. I like to think I’m quite a positive person and if I can maybe bring one or two people along with me and have a positive influence on the squad then that is worth its weight in gold I feel. At the end of the day, everybody wants to win and if you are a winning team it’s an awful lot of fun. Harlequins made sure all the leavers got their medals so that was a nice little gesture, they gave me a medal so I appreciated that,” said the soon-to-be 27-year-old, going on to summarise the entirety of his stay in south-west London.

“Probably a life experience I’d call it. I learned a lot about myself, had some very dark days, had some great days there. The life experience that place gave me over the last three years was more than I had in the 23 years of my life before that. I will be thankful for that and I probably made some of my closest mates for life through Quins as well, so I will always be appreciative of that. 

I worked out that I spent exactly half of my time there injured. That was pretty tough to take when my first season I strung together 24 games but then after that seemed to struggle and it was stuff that was out of my control where I have been injured in contact by someone else, it wasn’t my body giving up on me. It was things out of my control and that is where I found it difficult at times because there was nothing I could do about it. 

“I was, ‘Why me, why does this keep happening to me?’ At times it was pretty tough but there was a really good core group there and I had some really good friends who made sure I never really felt left out and they made sure I kept my spirits up throughout both long layoffs that I had.”

Did Harlequins ever see the best of Earle? “In recent memory, in my last season when we played at Gloucester and went down to 13 men. When the proverbial hits the fan you see the best out of someone and that is what it felt like, that it brought the best out of me. There were a few other games before that but I just can’t remember them,” he outlined before getting onto the thorny Paul Gustard subject. 

It was last January when the head of rugby exited, five months later when the team he had moulded for two-and-a-half years lifted the trophy without Gustard involved. “I knew Paul really well so I would never have a bad thing to say about him,” reasoned Earle.

“The Premiership win was built off the work that he did. You look at some of the influences he tried to instil on the squad, hard-working, working for one another etc, and then being hard to beat. I know the defence was a bit of an issue towards the end of the season but they became a team that was hard to beat and they became the team that was always coming back. 

“Without those things, the team probably wouldn’t have done as well as they would have and I also think having Gussy as a coach helped Marcus (Smith) out. As much as you may not have seen his attacking prowess under Gussy, it taught him how to run a game and how to manage a team properly so from one to 15 on that finals day we still saw the influences of Paul Gustard.

“Marcus probably had the best six weeks of any rugby player’s life, didn’t he? Won a Prem, capped by England, on a Lions tour. He deserved everything he got last season. He was head and shoulders above anyone else in the Premiership playing in his position. He was phenomenal and to say that about a 21, 22-year-old, it’s a commendation to him because he is one hell of a player, the most talented player I have ever been around. I’m sure he will go from strength to strength this season and hopefully build on that because he is a lovely lad as well.”

And what about Earle, what will he bring to the table at Newcastle on the back of that ‘life experience’ at Harlequins? “I’d say I’m now an intelligent winger. As time has gone on you learn the nuances of the game a bit more and I have been around the block a bit now where I know what I’m about, so I hopefully can bring intelligent rugby and hopefully I can excite people as well because I’d like to get bums off seats if possible.

Harlequins broke the mould a bit. Teams were following the Sarries style of structured gameplay and then Harlequins did the complete opposite of that and showed us attacking rugby is still alive. Teams have taken heed of the way the rule changes are going, they are favouring attacking rugby and we will hopefully see a lot more attacking rugby.

“Hopefully, we will see teams keen to attack from deeper positions on the pitch and we will see more tries and more exciting rugby because what we all want is an exciting game to sell to the fans to get people interested in it. If a casual viewer can watch a game and get the blood pumping, be really excited and become a fan, long may it continue because we all need to grow this sport and we all want this sport to be in a better place when we leave it.”


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