|22 Apr 2022|
Saracens flanker Ben Earl turned to batsman for advice after England exile, writes Alex Lowe
Ben Earl and Zak Crawley, who have been friends since their schoolboy days in Kent and made their respective England debuts ten weeks apart, have been helping each other navigate the sharp vicissitudes of international sport.
Crawley, the batsman who scored a double hundred against Pakistan in 2020, was dropped during the home series against India last year but recalled to try and shore up a flimsy top order in Australia and scored 121 against West Indies in March.
Earl, the Saracens flanker, was the coming man for England’s rugby team. Eddie Jones, the head coach, loved his pace, athleticism and versatility. “He’s that hybrid-type player who can play back row with pace and skill but also play in the back line with pace and skill,” Jones said.
Earl won 13 caps off the bench but has not featured in a year, one of three Saracens players to be jettisoned by Jones after a 32-18 defeat in Ireland last year condemned England to fifth place in the Six Nations. In that time, the 24-year-old has spoken with Calum Clarke, the former Saracens flanker who is now working as the club’s well-being and personal development manager, and with Crawley about how to bounce back.
The advice has been invaluable. Earl is not a guaranteed selection for England’s tour to Australia given the back row depth available to Jones in the form of Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Jack Willis and Sam Simmonds. But a shift in mindset has helped him prove a point to the England coaches, while underpinning Saracens’ drive towards a home Gallagher Premiership semi-final.
The chop tackle and ferocious defence are areas in which Earl’s England open-side rivals excel. Earl has popped up for six tries this season but he is the leading tackler in the league, completing 283 at an average of 14 per game (without incurring a single yellow card).
“A clear message that I’ve always had from Eddie has been about my defence and I’d like to think that I’ve put it to bed now that I’m a weaker defender than maybe those two [Curry and Underhill],” Earl said. “I would certainly like to think that is less of a conversation. The chop tackle is back in fashion now because of the card issue and it’s something that I’ve worked hard on in terms of being dominant.
“Calum has done a psychology degree, he is doing a master’s and he has been brilliant with me. And I am good mates with Zak Crawley. He’s obviously had some unbelievable highs and some interesting lows, in terms of the Ashes and whatever. So I speak to him quite a bit.
“We stay in contact on lessons that we can learn from one another and it’s a good mutual relationship. I feel like my game has become a little bit more rounded. I’ve got a little bit more perspective on how the game is played and how I think the game should be played.
“I’ve learned a little bit more about giving what the team needs more than growing my own highlights reel. I am putting myself in the right places on the pitch to do my best for the team and I’ve probably got a bit more awareness about where I’m best suited.
“I was relatively successful at quite an early stage of my career and I have had an up-and-down journey in the last 12 to 18 months, certainly from the end of last year’s Six Nations to now. I’ve had some real highs and some real lows.
“I’ve learned a lot from that and I feel like I’ve matured a lot from that.”
Mako and Billy Vunipola have also been exiled by England since last year’s Six Nations. Jamie George was initially dropped too, although fought his way back in, and Alex Lozowski remains unwanted by Jones despite his stellar club form.
Other than Mako Vunipola, who is injured, the rest will be in harness for Saracens on Sunday, when they have a chance to severely dent Exeter Chiefs’ play-off hopes when the two sides meet at StoneX Park.
It has become something of a grudge match, at least from the Devon perspective. A mass brawl broke out when the two sides played in December 2019. Rob Baxter, Exeter’s director of rugby, said before their first meeting this season that the whole affair still “felt personal” to some the Chiefs.
Earl rates that game at Sandy Park, won 18-15 by Exeter, as one of the toughest he has played this season; an indication of what lies in store on Sunday. A Saracens victory would be a major step towards securing a home semi final.
“If you look at what happened to Harlequins last year [and how they won the title], momentum was crucial,” Earl said. “That’s something we’re speaking about as we head down the home straight, not just the tangible five points but also how we feel. We have not had the whole squad together for much of this season because of internationals and injuries but we are getting there now and it is exciting.”
See the full article in The Times here