Whilst the headlines around English rugby focused on the looming Test against Wales and the possibility that the national side’s game against Italy could be called off or postponed due to the Coronavirus outbreak, the law firm of Earl, Smith and Lawrence were busy preparing a case for England in the Gallagher Premiership.
On an exciting Saturday of domestic rugby, where Harlequins pipped high-fliers Exeter Chiefs at the Stoop, Saracens came away from Franklin’s Gardens with bragging rights over Northampton Saints and Leicester Tigers defeated Worcester Warriors in what, in any other season, would have been a compelling relegation battle, the trio of Ben Earl, Marcus Smith and Ollie Lawrence all put down significant markers.
All three are talented young players who have their best years ahead of them and all three are seemingly on a pathway to plenty of senior England caps in the coming seasons. Both Smith and Lawrence have been identified by head coach Eddie Jones and have been involved in multiple England squads and/or training camps as apprentices, whilst Earl recently won his first two international caps, debuting against Scotland from the bench before playing a similar role against Ireland at Twickenham over a week ago.
Having been released by England for club duty this weekend, Earl was a leader by example for a Saracens pack bereft of Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Jamie George and the Vunipola brothers. Even amongst a Rugby World Cup winner like Vincent Koch, a seasoned international like Will Skelton and a player that has exemplified everything that Saracens are about for a decade now in Jackson Wray, the 22-year-old Earl was the focal point of everything positive about Saracens’ pack.
His x-factor with the ball in hand is what separates him from the rest of England’s exciting young back row contingent, such as Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, and he displayed that ability to get his team moving forward on Saturday. He’s not a physical mauler or a slight will-o’-the-wisp who is going to ghost through holes that aren’t there, but his combination of size, speed and, most importantly, footwork, allow him to generate a power that few of England’s other options can match.
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In fairness to Exeter’s Sam Simmonds, he had an impressive outing in south-west London just a stone’s throw from Twickenham stadium at the same time, whilst Zach Mercer has displayed his undeniable talents recently since coming back from injury. Both players have their own, very valid, claims on a spot in England’s back row, but it seems as though Earl is currently the favoured man in Jones’ eyes.
That could be down to the defensive aggression and decision-making that Earl also brings to the table, something which was encapsulated in his intercept try against Northampton. It’s a hallmark of Saracens forwards and salary cap scandal or no salary cap scandal, those off-field indiscretions have no bearing on the likes of Earl, Nick Isiekwe and Joel Kpoku continuing to show those qualities and push themselves into England contention.
Speaking of Simmonds’ showing at the Stoop, it was the ability of Harlequins’ Smith to unlock defences, manage the game and keep the scoreboard ticking over that really stole the show. After having burst on to the scene as an exceptionally talented 18-year-old fresh out of school, it seems like attention on Smith has quietly dwindled, yet the playmaker is showing impressive maturation and rounding out the areas of his game that may have come in for criticism previously.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 29, 2020
Harking back to those will-o’-the-wisp type ball-carriers, that is exactly what Smith is. The 21-year-old has footwork that would make the soon-to-be NFL running backs doing the ‘Duce Staley drill’ at the Combine nod their heads in admiration, and he has the ability to move quickly through the gears to turn those manufactured creases in a defensive line into gaping chasms. He has rapidly become one of the most reliable goal-kickers in the Premiership, too, whilst he is less and less guilty of overplaying his hand, something which afflicted him a couple of seasons ago, and instead lets the game come to him.
The persistent criticism fans seem to have of Smith is that defensively he has his flaws. There’s certainly some truth to that when he goes high on a ball-carrier and his smaller frame is put in a position where he is rarely going to win, however his execution when going low and chopping a ball-carrier down at the knees or the ankles is impressive. George Ford’s defence, or more specifically his decision-making in the tackle in particular, has improved notably of late and there’s no reason why Smith’s wouldn’t also prosper in that environment.
Finally, we come to Lawrence of Worcester, who put in a busy and eye-catching performance in his side’s loss to Leicester at Welford Road. In an age of midfield ball-handlers and guys that can stand up a defender and burn him on the outside, English rugby has encountered a dwindling pool of centres who can plant a foot in the ground, target a weak inside shoulder and break the gain-line. In addition to an array of other skills, that’s the increasingly rare ability that Lawrence can bring.
Quality read – Alex Shaw sits down with Ollie Lawrence to discuss his exceptional career so far. https://t.co/9tLPYxi3Lb
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 28, 2018
England with and without Manu Tuilagi are two very different sides and there is no like-for-like replacement for the Tiger in the current England squad. In reality, there’s no like-for-like replacement for him in English rugby currently, either, such are the unique traits he brings, though Lawrence potentially could provide that same sort of role in the midfield. He’ll never be as physical as Tuilagi, though with his quick footwork and instincts for gaps in defences, he can replicate the incisiveness of the veteran centre, albeit in his own way.
The 20-year-old is mobile, with the lateral speed to recover in defence, as well as boasting evolving distribution skills. That said, he’s not going to surpass Henry Slade as a passer, or necessarily Joe Marchant and Jonathan Joseph as a man who can gas his opposite number on the outside, it’s in his physicality and violence as a runner where he creates his own niche within English rugby.
For all three of these young talents, the persistent theme across their respective skillsets is their outstanding footwork. The rugby media are guilty of losing their heads over size and speed, but it’s the footwork that transfers those factors into the power that is generated on the pitch, and power inevitably leads to dynamism.
You may never have heard of it, but SLAR is potentially a hotbed of player recruitment for professional clubs in Europe.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 26, 2020
Generally, the more dynamic a team is, the more successful they are, and you need look no further than the current Guinness Six Nations and the recent Rugby World Cup knockout rounds to see the truth of that. If you can pick players that give you that point of difference, the other areas of their game can be worked on as they go.
Based on Saturday’s games, in addition to what they have done in the recent weeks and months, Earl has done nothing to harm his chances of further international caps against Wales and Italy, whilst Smith and Lawrence must surely be firmly in Jones’ plans for the summer tour of Japan.
As physical freaks and players with athletic points of difference have come to dominate the sport, the law firm of Earl, Smith and Lawrence is not only open for business, it’s ready to go to court.
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