Forgotten Harlequins winger Nathan Earle is as giddily excited as a kid counting down the days to Christmas right now. Just a dozen more sleeps remain until the Premiership lockdown is finally over. The August 14 restart will bridge a near 23-week gap in between games for Quins, who were last in action way back on March 8 at Bristol. For Earle, though, it will be his first match in 16 months, his purgatory the legacy of an April 2019 torn ACL versus Northampton.
Earle feels as good as new, better than he was before getting struck down for Harlequins. All he wants now is the opportunity to demonstrate it. “I said it to my girlfriend, I actually quite miss the soreness on a Saturday or Sunday morning just because now I’m getting weekends off and I’m feeling fresh, but I would quite like to be sore again,” he told RugbyPass over a Zoom call.
“With all the testing we have done I have not lost any sort of pace. My knee feels just as it did before. Physically I feel like where I was at before, but I think I’m better than where I was at before the injury. It has given me a bit of time to sort out a few other niggles I have had. This is probably the best I feel going into a game the last number of years now.”
It’s the sole upside of the rugby-wrecking lockdown – extra time to get the body in peak condition after his initial return date was dashed by the season going into cold storage last March. “I would have been playing more or less the second or third week of lockdown, that was the game we were aiming for.
“It’s been a bit of a silver lining for me, I have had more time to prepare my knee and prepare my body to get hit again because I have not been hit in 18 months, so it’s exciting. I’m champing at the bit to get going now because there is only so long you can train and be in a gym without actually having that release at the weekend, so I can’t wait.
“My main thing will be to try not to take anyone’s head off. I don’t want to get red-carded and taken off the pitch. As I said, I’m champing at the bit and it’s about getting on the pitch and staying on it, not trying to get carded or anything like that.”
It’s clear Earle doesn’t take this playing again for Harlequins responsibility lightly. “It’s my second big injury, I did my Achilles as well,” he continued. “This is I suppose a reminder that it’s a fickle game and you’re always one injury away from potentially having to retire.
“For me, it has just put more emphasis on what I’m doing away from rugby as well because you have to be prepared. With one of my close friends Max Crumpton having to retire through injury it just puts into stark reality this is part and parcel of the game. This is something I don’t think is talked about quite enough but we have to prepare for when we can’t play anymore.”
It was in May three months ago when Earle, a 2018 signing from across-London rivals Saracens, re-pinned his colours to the Harlequins mast. Hands were shaken on a fresh one-year deal, a decision he now hopes to repay back on the pitch where he bagged eleven tries in 23 2018/19 Premiership and European Challenge Cup appearances for a club where he describes the influence of Paul Gustard and co as inspired.
“I just feel like I have had the trust from the coaches,” he said, outlining his reasons for staying on at The Stoop. “When I was at Sarries I always felt on edge with the coaches, I never felt like I fully had their trust whereas since I have been at Quins I feel like my rugby has been able to flourish because Paul said, ‘You’re my winger, I’m going to play you’. He kind of let me not say get used to the Premiership but just let me do my thing and that kind of breathed good performances. I had a pretty good start before my injury and had a pretty good first season.”
The impact of Earle at Harlequins didn’t go unnoticed higher up the food chain. He was named in Eddie Jones’ wider England squad ahead of the 2019 Six Nations after scoring in an uncapped 2018 fixture against the Barbarians, while he also toured Argentina the previous summer.
Set to turn 26 in late September, the feeling exists that ample time is on the winger’s side to win that elusive first Test cap. He doesn’t agree, though, explaining how the career of winger doesn’t have the same shelf life afforded to other rugby positions.
“To our detriment, it’s probably one of the easier positions to play on the pitch,” he said. “If you’re a good rugby player, you’re a good athlete and you’re probably likely to go relatively well. If you’re committed, can run fast and if you have got good feet you’re likely to go relatively well on the wing because there is not as much thinking that has to go into to it.
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“Like, compare what we do to a tighthead prop. I feel like a tighthead prop can go much longer because they don’t hit their peak until the late 20s, early 30s whereas a winger’s peak is probably mid to late 20s because that is when your body starts to go downhill and there is always a younger, faster kid coming up.”
Earle has returned to a Harlequins set-up with a vivid Covid-enforced difference. New measures must be followed on a daily basis, the series of midweek matches will curtail the prep time that normally goes into every fixture, while there is also an ongoing debate on whether to have fake crowd noise pumped out over the PA or just let players be the only sound audible when games do return to The Stoop, starting on Friday week versus Sale.
“Day to day, at the start of every week we get tested, which I wouldn’t recommend. The tests are horrible,” he said, explaining the impact of the Covid protocols. “When we are indoors we have got to wear masks all the time. In the gym, it is masks all the time. We have to clean all the kit that we use, and when we go home it’s about just making the right decisions and being sensible.
“If you go to the shop, wear a mask, bring hand sanitiser, stuff like that because at the end of the day if you’re the person that picks up Covid and it affects the team then everyone thinks you’re an idiot, so it’s just about taking the right precautions and just having a bit of common sense as well.
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“We have had to simplify quite a few things,” he added, moving on to team tactics. “We’re not going to have the same prep for every game obviously with the midweek games than we do in a normal Gallagher Premiership. Everything has been simplified.
“We have had Jerry (Flannery) come in as well which has been massive for the club and that’s brilliant. Everything has had to be simplified but not over-simplified – we’re not going to play boring rugby. We’re still going to play exciting rugby but we’re going to have to evolve from game to game rather than using one thing all the time.
“As a playing group we have been asked if we want (fake) crowd noise and it is kind of 50/50. It’s going to be strange playing on a pitch where you’re not having to shout at each other to hear, you have not got the crowd noise. It’s going to be a new experience. It’s not something I have had since I was 15, 16 years old – we’re talking about ten years of having a crowd. It’s going to be like back in a day a little bit.
“You will have to be cleverer about it because opposition coaches will hear shouts and calls on the pitch and they will be, ‘Right if they call this you know what is happening’. We’re going to have to be a bit smarter about what we’re doing.”
Earle certainly wasn’t closed off from the outside world during the lockdown. He kept abreast of the social unrest in Hong Kong, the place where he was born before the family returned to England in 1999 when he was a five-year-old. “It’s a sad, sorry state of affairs at the moment where China are kind of reneging on their agreement with the British handover.
“They are essentially trying to annex Hong Kong into the Chinese way which obviously the locals aren’t exactly happy with. I’m sure people in England if they are ever told, ‘Oh, your rights are going to be essentially taken away from you and your democratic rights to vote are going to be taken’, everyone would be pretty unhappy about that.”
There has also been the Black Lives Matter movement, an issue Earle has particularly been vocal about. “It’s massively important. There is still massive inequality between the races in our country and that is also inequality between rich and poor.
“But in regards to Harlequins, they have been brilliant with me,” Earle enthused. “I have been in constant touch with our head of media about trying to push Black Lives Matter stuff and I have spoken to Paul as well about us a black player group sitting down with the rest of the squad and explaining why it’s such an important thing and why there are these marches.
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“I suppose it’s now a bit more poignant than it has been in previous years. It’s been brilliant for me because I have got people asking questions and actually wanting to learn about my experiences and in general the experiences of black people in Britain. The more questions that are asked for a longer period and the more we can answer, then hopefully there will be some change.”
Earle even outlines how black people can stereotypically be affected in rugby itself. “For me, as a black player, you get pigeon-holed. You’re either an athlete and you’ll get stuck on the wing or he’s big, let’s stick him in the second row or the back row.
“You don’t see black or people of colour really in skilled positions like a nine or a ten, you don’t see that. It’s kind of those things where black players don’t get the opportunity to prove, well maybe I am better served in a different position on the pitch.
“I would never say that I have had an experience that is better or worse than anyone else because I understand I have been very lucky with my upbringing, lucky with where I have come from and the path into professional sport. Some other people’s (path) is incredibly different and they have had really tough experiences compared to mine.”
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Asked if there is a role he would love to experiment with, he quipped: “I always say I’m wasted on the wing, I should be a ten.” Adopting a serious tone, though, he added: “There are so many opportunities and ways that the game could be played. If people with this talent and athletic ability are in different positions, these people are getting the ball more.
“Imagine say if a player like Anthony Watson was a fly-half and he was getting the ball every two seconds, how dangerous that would be? For me, it’s just a learning that everyone has kind of got to relearn. Okay, just because he is black doesn’t mean he is going to be fast, it doesn’t mean he is going to be athletic. He might be, but let’s see what position best suits this person’s ability in playing style.”
Earle’s outlook extends to the coaches box where professional rugby in England has few BAME origin coaches. It’s a situation he is optimistic will eventually change over time, the winger going as far as predicting that Kyle Sinckler, the England and now Bristol tighthead, will make this successful transition.
“Kyle Sinckler would be a brilliant coach,” he said, speaking on behalf of Gallagher Rugby. “He has left us now, he is at Bristol, but the way he speaks to the squad, he speaks really well. He is super, super intelligent, super rugby intelligent. He is arguably one of the best running forwards in the game and is a tighthead prop, and he arguably one of the best handling forwards in the game. For him to go into coaching would be brilliant for the game and brilliant for the game in England, especially because he sees rugby in such a different way to any other prop I have ever seen.
“He commands respect because he performs on the pitch but then he is also an eloquent man and speaks really well. That is incredibly important if you want someone to actually relay messages correctly and be the focal point of your club because that is what the coach is. Kyle will be brilliant at that.”
One other thing Sinckler excels at is promoting Battersea Ironsides, the grassroots club that set him on his way in the game. Earle was recently on a call with some club members, revealing how they are one of a half-dozen clubs shortlisted for the Gallagher’s Rugby Club of the Season competition (voting goes live at the end of August).
He may be a long time in and around the pro game himself, having initially lined up with the Saracens academy at the age of 14 before switching to Harlequins, but Earle to this day has never forgotten his own roots. “My mum is still bookkeeper of my local club, Cranbrook. She gets me down, cracks the whip, ‘You need to get down, you need to get down to see everyone’. So I still quite often to my local club. If mum cracks the whip I have got to go.
“It’s good. We have had a few professionals. Ruaridh McConnachie was Cranbrook as well and so is Harry Sloan, so we all get down every now and then when we can.”
* Harlequins winger Nathan Earle was speaking on behalf of Gallagher’s Rugby Club of the Season competition where Battersea Ironsides RFC are finalists. Find out more about Gallagher’s Rugby Club of the Season finalists here – https://www.ajg.com/uk/news-and-insights/2020/january/gallagher-rugby-club-competition/
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