The transformation in Ben Earl’s Test career has been a feelgood story of England’s World Cup. In early August, he was unsure of his place in the 33-man squad — now he is acclaimed as one of the stars of the tournament.
When Steve Borthwick named his line-up for the first summer warm-up, against Wales in Cardiff, the Saracens back-rower was not involved. It meant he was denied an audition before the head coach finalised his selections for this global showpiece in France.
The perception was that he might not be in the frame at all —and Earl’s evident joy at the squad announcement event at Twickenham was telling. He was relieved and euphoric, having been unsure whether he had done enough in training to make the cut.
After so many seasons of supreme club form not leading to a break-through into England’s first-choice side, he had learned to keep his hopes well and truly in check.
Even after crossing the Channel with the rest of the England squad, the primary focus was on Earl’s on-pitch celebrations, rather than his performances. In an exclusive interview with Mail Sport, the 25-year-old defended the fist-pumping routine which had antagonised so many people.
Ben Earl has become a vital cog in England’s system but his place in the squad wasn’t even cemented in August – so how has he become one of the stars?
The 25-year-old has been outstanding in defence and attack and his contribution to the win over Fiji in Marseille was magnificent
How different the narrative is now. Earl has been an outstanding figure in England’s surge to the semi-finals, in attack and defence. His contribution to the win over Fiji in Marseille last Sunday was magnificent, with the ball and without it. He made tackles and metres galore, won turnover penalties and even had the energy left for a barnstorming 50-metre break in the closing stages which set up Owen Farrell’s decisive drop goal.
Asked to assess Earl’s contributions, England defence coach Kevin Sinfield offered an emphatic tribute, saying: ‘He has been one of the stand-out players at the tournament The minutes he has played, the ground he has covered; he has done a great job. That’s on both sides of the ball too.
‘He has worked incredibly hard. He has faced adversity with England, but he has gone after it and he deserves everything he gets.’
Ollie Chessum, the Leicester lock at the heart of the England pack, offered his own endorsement of the man who has mostly operated at No 8, adding: ‘In moments when we have needed someone to pull something out of a hat, Benny’s been that person. We can look to him to bring that powerful, dynamic aspect of his game. He’s been fantastic.’
Kevin Sinfield said that Earl has worked hard after facing adversity with England. ‘He deserves everything he gets,’ Sinfield added
Ollie Chessum said: ‘In moments when we have needed someone to pull something out of a hat, Benny’s been that person’
So how has Earl gone from fringe Test wannabe, whose first 15 caps for England were all won from the bench, to a key figure? At his club, they have seen at close quarters how the penny has dropped about the application needed to back up so much raw talent. There has been an attitude shift.
‘He understands what he needs to do in the week; how he needs to train and how he needs to live day to day, to be in the best shape come the weekend,’ said Saracens forwards coach Ian Peel.
‘He’s said himself that, before, he was a bit of a finger-in-the-air-and-hope sort of guy, but now he’s got a process in place and he’s doing what he needs to do.
‘Ben is exceptionally talented; not just as a rugby player, but as a sportsman. He has managed to transfer that pace, power and skills-set he has to really impact on the game. It’s all about his work ethic. When he came through as an 18, 19-year-old, he might do one brilliant thing then go missing for five minutes. Now, he’s able to consistently get in the game.
‘He’s really fit now and he’s seeing the fruit of all his hard labour; not just in rugby training but in the gym and with his conditioning stuff. He’s having repeat involvements in attack, in the tackle and in the tackle area, getting his hands on the ball. He’s constantly in and around the ball now.’
Saracens forward coach Ian Peel said: ‘He has managed to transfer that pace, power and skills-set he has to really impact on the game. It’s all about his work ethic’
Earl has delivered at a high level for Saracens for years and has brought that form to England
At Saracens, they have relished seeing Earl deliver for his country as he has so often at domestic level. They have enjoyed watching all that potential being harnessed and unleashed.
‘He’s going really well,’ said Peel. ‘He’s managing to transfer his club form into international rugby now. What we all thought he could bring, he’s managing to transfer that. We’ve seen his pace, his power and his skills-set; we are seeing all of that now.
‘It’s awesome to see. We knew it was a matter of when, not if. We all knew he was going to be good enough, it was just about how long it took. It was the same for him when he broke into our first team, once he had understood what he needed to do and found that consistency. He’s never looked back.’
Earl is taking it all in his stride. Asked after the Fiji game if he is becoming a senior figure for England, he said: ‘I’m quite happy just doing my bit for the team. If the time ever comes where they need more from me, I’ll be ready for that, but at the moment I’ll focus on playing well and contributing.’
He is certainly doing that.