Ben Earl leads Saracens’ resurgence
Ben Earl's (JH 11-16) impressive performance reviewed in the Guardian
The following article was published in The Guardian, 9 December 2018:
Saracens march on with another half-century, another seven tries and another demonstration of how determined they are to reclaim the Champions Cup trophy. If there was any surprise, it took until the introduction of the 20-year-old back-row Ben Earl early in the second half to turn the match in their favour but, all be told, this was a show of Saracens’ remarkable strength in depth to extend their unbeaten run to 21 matches in all competitions.
Add in 59 minutes under Mako Vunipola’s belt on his first appearance for eight weeks and despite a lacklustre first half, there should be few complaints for Mark McCall, whose side are cruising towards a home quarter-final. They trailed by five points at half-time but the second-half siege has long been a familiar trait of theirs, especially at home, and Cardiff Blues, who began with nine first-team players missing, simply could not live with it.
To do so without George Kruis, Billy Vunipola and Maro Itoje is all the more impressive and in a boost for the watching Eddie Jones, McCall confirmed the last of those is expected to be sidelined for “more than four [but] less than eight weeks” with the knee injury he carried throughout England’s autumn campaign and therefore is on course to return for the Six Nations. “It doesn’t require surgery so it will depend how the rehab goes and just how functional he is,” said McCall. “He’ll be back in time for the Six Nations.”
Earl’s impact was immediate – he scored two tries within five minutes of coming on – and after the first pulled Saracens level on 44 minutes there was little doubting what was about to happen. Such is Saracens’ depth they can afford Owen Farrell to have a distinctly rusty match on his return after England’s autumn campaign and still achieve their highest points total of the season.
The Blues were good value for their half-time lead, notching two tries through Blaine Scully and Matthew Morgan, whose solo score will feature on plenty of highlight reels. while Samu Manoa, for his hard hitting, and Olly Robinson, for his work at the breakdown, also emerge with credit.
Saracens scored the opening try with their first attack – Brad Barritt breaking through the Blues’ makeshift midfield before offloading to Alex Lozowski, who found Richard Wigglesworth to scoot over just a few days after signing a new two-year deal. The Blues were undeterred, however, with Scully going over on the right before Morgan’s 60-metre run to the line left five Saracens defenders in his wake. Gareth Anscombe and Farrell then traded a pair of penalties to send the Blues in at the break 18-13 to the good.
Saracens’ response was as immediate as it was emphatic. Earl came on to the pitch after 42 minutes and two minutes later he had put Saracens back on level terms. It was he who made the tackle on the Blues’ replacement scrum-half Lewis Jones to win the ball for Saracens and it was Earl who was on hand to finish.
Three minutes later Earl picked off a poor pass from Anscombe to scoot over unopposed. Earl, who has captained England U20s this year, was a surprise inclusion on the summer tour of South Africa and, though he was not included in any of the autumn squads, his time will surely come. “Ben has played a couple of great games for us this year and he has a great chance of starting next week,” added McCall.
A yellow card for Robinson was soon followed by the bonus point try – Sean Maitland evading Morgan’s challenge to finish in the right corner. Two minutes later the Scotland wing was over for his second before Ben Spencer added try No6, sniping over after a close-range scrum. Christian Judge also got in on the act on his European debut before Robinson got the try his performance deserved.