Our meeting place is Ben Earl’s local cafe in Queen’s Park, north London, the same area where we met four years ago. He has enjoyed a few windfall moments since but is still in the same house. He likes this part of town. The gigs, the snooker halls, the short Tube ride into the city.
It is a chilly morning, just like the one back in 2020, and he is wearing an almost identical outfit: tracksuit bottoms and a blue hoodie. Perhaps the jumper is a size larger.
Back then, Earl was still filling out. He was completing a degree in comparative literature, covering texts on Greek poetry and the Caribbean. Our conversation covered the rapper Post Malone’s concerts — he is still a fan — and also his new collection of vinyl.
‘My record collection’s grown a bit since then,’ he says, sipping on his morning coffee, reflecting on our previous interview. ‘The album AM by the Arctic Monkeys is the best one I’ve listened to for a while.’
That early conversation formed a profile feature on England’s next breakthrough star. The headline tipped him to become a key player in coach Eddie Jones’s back row in the 2020 Six Nations but history shows that it took a little longer than expected.
England star Ben Earl sat down with Mail Sport in a local cafe in Queen’s Park, north London
The 26-year-old discussed everything from on-pitch aspirations to his record collection
‘That was such an exciting time. It probably all came too early for me. I can say that now but you don’t know what it takes at that point. I was 21. There’s so much that goes into playing well consistently I didn’t even think about.
‘Every time I played rugby it was like a roll of the dice, wondering what player I’d be. It was a bit like a school of hard knocks, especially with my club Saracens getting relegated that year. There were some s**t moments but I’m glad it all happened. It’s been a pretty wild ride, so far…’
Earl played a handful of minutes from the bench in the 2020 championship. His breakthrough year? Not quite.
Now, Earl is living up to his billing. He was the tenacious star of England’s World Cup last autumn and flew to the Caribbean to reflect on the campaign which finally wrote his name upon the Test arena.
He was one of the few England players in contention for the team of the tournament, never giving up if those around him were floundering.
‘I had a brilliant time at the World Cup. It was nice to show glimpses of something I thought I could do for quite a long time. I remember sitting back in my house on the Monday afterwards, coming back to normality thinking, “I can’t believe that’s over”.
‘I went to Antigua with my girlfriend and for the first four days I just slept. I was so tired. Exhausted . . . physically, emotionally, mentally. Eventually we drove around the island, snorkelled, drank rum punch. No rush. They call it island time.
Earl insisted that he ‘had a brilliant time at the World Cup’ despite England falling short
The 26-year-old had the chance to, briefly, show his talents for England on the big stage
‘There was a sadness it was over but you look forward and think, “What’s next?” It’ll be an interesting time for a few of us in our careers.’
It is an interesting time for England, full stop. Under Steve Borthwick, the toxicity of the Jones regime is drifting further into the distance and, one by one, his trusted lieutenants are stepping into the international wilderness.
Earl’s tutelage came from the likes of Owen Farrell and Courtney Lawes. Their expectations were high and they left their mark on the next generation.
‘The expectation on myself now is higher,’ says Earl. ‘I don’t want to be the kind of player remembered for having one good tournament, maybe play 30 times for England and never be seen again. With this young group of players coming through — guys like Alfie Barbeary, Tom Pearson, Ethan Roots — if you rest on your laurels then you get left behind.
‘The next step is taking more of a senior role. There is a bit of a changing of the guard happening. At the World Cup, I could just focus on myself because of the quality of leaders. There will be a bit more of a demand now on the players who have got 25, 30 caps. A lot of IQ has gone in Courtney, Owen, Ben Youngs, Jonny May and you need to replace that.
‘I’ve set my stall out to try to be the best player in the world at the end of the year. That’s my goal for 2024, to get myself in that conversation. There’s a lot that goes into that. It’s not just the rugby stuff, it’s nutrition and everything like that.’
Best in the world? That is a big statement, the sort that gets picked up in headlines or on social media, but he shrugs. ‘I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it.’
Expectations on the England star will be growing, as he takes on more responsibility in the side
The Saracens flanker claims that his aim is to take on a ‘more senior role’ in the England team
Even if he has gone up a jumper size, Earl will never be a heavyweight ball-carrier such as Billy Vunipola or Duane Vermeulen. Yet he trumps that with his footwork and dynamism — and now the public see him as one of England’s go-to guys. He overcame a knee injury at the end of last year and is now ready to go again.
‘That time off gave me a chance to work out my next goal. It also gave me time to watch snooker! I loved the Ronnie O’Sullivan documentary on Netflix, so me and Alex Lozowski went to Ally Pally and met the chairman of the World Snooker Tour. We love it.
‘For me, the 147 is the most perfect bit of sport. It’s like the nine-darter or a hole in one. Plotting your way around that table and thinking. It’s so hard, a bit like golf, you never crack it. Getting 100 per cent at the lineout is probably as close as you could get to the 147. In snooker, the errors you make mean frame over. Dealing with that pressure, the mental process . . . there is some crossover.’
The Netflix cameras will be in England’s changing rooms over the coming weeks, starting in Italy on Saturday. Earl could become a star of the show. For rugby’s sake, let’s hope it is as successful as the O’Sullivan series, to help reconnect the national team with the public.
Earl insisted that he’s ‘set my stall out to try to be the best player in the world’ in 2024
‘Last year it felt like it was us against the world. We were trying to cause upsets every week but that narrative doesn’t have a long life. In the Six Nations there will be a different expectation because people were buoyed by how far we went at the World Cup.
‘It’s a new direction for England. There has to be some understanding that we’re not going to create exactly the same feeling, process, performance. You take out someone like Courtney, one of the best in the world.
‘Then, whoever wears six against Italy shouldn’t try to play like Courtney Lawes, they should try to play like themselves. It’s not replacing like for like. The magic of the England team is that there will be a new look.’
Four years have passed since his debut and Earl (left) has well and truly arrived on the scene. This time, you sense that he is here to stay.