FEATURE INTERVIEW | Ben Earl
The stakes just keep on getting higher in the race for a back row slot at Saracens.
Round 3 of the Six nations saw Andy Christie come on to win his first cap for Scotland in their defeat to the French to make it five internationals from four different countries battling it out for three starting berths when everyone is available.
Add in two England locks who are equally at home at blindside flanker, and England U20 caps and, when he is fit, a veteran of more than 250 games for the ‘Men in Black’ and you see why training, never mind playing, for Saracens is so intense.
Ben Earl was delighted to see Christie graduate to senior international honours last weekend and can’t wait to welcome him back to the club. Earl, just like Billy and Mako Vunipola, have been watching from the outside so far in the 2022 Six Nations, but keen to prove a point whenever they turn out for their club.
“It has been massively frustrating and disappointing not being involved with England in the Six Nations. It isn’t just me at the club who feel that way, there is a good handful of us,” said Earl.
“But all it has done is strengthen our resolve as individuals and within our team context. I’d love to be involved with England and I hope my performances for Saracens have demonstrated that.
“I know that Billy is as disappointed as I am, and it is a massive incentive for us when we are playing for Saracens to show we still have what it takes to play for our country. We urge each other on and the fact there is so much competition for a place in the Sarries back row means you can never afford to drop your standards.
“As well as being my friends, they are all rivals too. We enjoy a very healthy relationship and it keeps everyone focused. I love it because I’m back playing with some of my closest mates at the club, players with whom I’ve grown up at Saracens since I was 14.”
What a headache the coaches must have every week determining who plays in the Nos 6, 7 and 8 shirts at the club. How do you perm three from the likes of England caps Billy Vunipola and Earl, Samoan star Theo McFarland, new Scottish international Christie, Namibian flanker Janco Venter , England U20 product Sean Reffell, Jackson Wray, and England second rows-cum-flankers Maro Itoje and Nick Isiekwe.
The 24-year-old Earl won the last of his 13 caps to date in the defeat to Ireland in Dublin on 20 March last year. His debut had come at Murrayfield in a win over the Scots a year earlier. Eddie Jones used him as an impact sub in all of his international appearances to date and now he has his sights set on starting a senior game for England for the first time.
To do that he hopes to steer Saracens into the play-off places in the Gallagher Premiership and then make an all-out assault on the title once again.
“It is the most competitive Premiership I have known in my short time in the tournament. The goal for all of us when the club came back up out of the Championship was to return to the top of English club rugby,” added Earl.
“Everyone realises we won’t get there by just wanting it and talking about it – we have to earn it. There will be a few bumps and bruises along the way, but everything is geared towards getting to the final in June.
“Every team is beatable in the league and there are so many different styles. Leicester Tigers, Gloucester and Exeter Chiefs tend to be more set-piece orientated, whereas teams like Harlequins and Bristol are more expansive.”
Earl spent a season on loan at Bristol Bears last season with Max Malins, but is happy to be back. He claims his return to the StoneX Stadium was “a seamless transition” and admits that as much as he enjoyed his time working under Pat Lam, he couldn’t wait to get back to Sarries “to contribute as much as I can.” So far, so good!
“There is a great phrase at Saracens that has always stuck in my mind – ‘you work incredibly hard and we treat you incredibly well’. The feeling around the club is simply unbelievable,” said Earl.
“When I was first breaking into the team I remember we went on an eight game losing streak. A team meeting was called and we all went into the room and waited for the coaches. Mark McCall stood up and then all the coaches left the room, leaving the players on their own.
“I thought my chances of playing again were over until Billy Vunipola stood up, probably prompted by Mark, and told us he knew what the problem was. ‘We haven’t been on the p*** together for ages’.
“We all jumped into our cars and he led us to a bar in St Albans where beers were laid on for us. It was a Thursday afternoon, I think, and when we went into the meeting I thought we were going to get the hairdryer treatment. Instead, after an hour and a half in the bar we all went home to wake up with a headache in the morning.
“We didn’t lose again until May!”