Ben Earl: 'England World Cup battle is about who slips up first – I don't want it to be me'
Ben Earl is relishing a Twickenham tussle with Tom Curry and hopes helping Saracens to Premiership glory can push him up England’s packed pecking order ahead of the World Cup.
The 25-year-old tends to tackle elephants in the room and knows that Steve Borthwick will be scrutinising his performance against Sale Sharks this weekend. He is also wary that “who slips up first” could fall out of a fiercely competitive back-row shake-up.
Earl, yet to start a Test match despite making his debut under Eddie Jones over three years ago, was disappointed not to get more than two brief cameos off the bench during the recent Six Nations. While satisfied with his form for Saracens to date, he is determined to establish himself at the next level. Having never before featured in a triumphant Premiership final, Saturday is a significant milestone for him.
“Selfishly, the elephant in the room is that I wish I could have played a bit more for England in that Six Nations campaign,” Earl said this week.
“For whatever reason, I didn’t, and I’ve learnt a lot from that. But I feel that I have contributed as much as I could have done here [at Saracens]. I’m looking forward to going again, putting my best foot forward in these big games, which has been a big focus of mine.”
'Coming short last year has made us hungrier'
“The amount of times I have carried bags for games like these when I was a bit younger, I’ve always wanted to celebrate a win,” he added. “Coming a little bit short last year has only made this group hungrier and me hungrier. To win the league after such a long slog with your boyhood club would be everything, really.”
'Tom Curry's a good mate and a quality player'
At the beginning of the campaign, Earl was equally candid about what he felt were subdued displays in Saracens losses to Toulon, in the Challenge Cup quarter-final, and in the Premiership final to Leicester Tigers.
Chief among the tough lessons from those matches have been “not to be too desperate” or to “chase it too much” when stakes are high. Earl, an avid golfer with a handicap of three, played at Sunningdale on Wednesday to help him relax before a “do or die” domestic showpiece against Sale. His head-to-head against Curry, an age-grade England colleague, could be pivotal with Ben Curry out injured.
“It’s one of those small battles that seem to be all over the pitch,” Earl said. “It will probably have a big influence on the game, whoever comes out on top in terms of the back row in general. Tom’s a good mate of mine. We’ve played rugby together since about 16 and we know one other’s games pretty well.
“He’s had a bit of time out this year, been a bit stop-start, but what a quality player, one I’ve aspired to emulate for some time. To come up against him - and I’m gutted for Ben - is a good honour.”
'Steve was unbelievably positive about my work in the Six Nations'
Jack Willis, Tom Pearson and Lewis Ludlam are three more in-form flankers aiming for the World Cup, with Courtney Lawes also bound to come into contention as a blindside option. While domestic excellence has not been sufficient to give Earl an extended England opportunity yet, he will keep banging at the door.
“The moment that you stop performing, you give someone an easy reason not to pick you,” he said. “On the flip-side, if I get a chance to play a Test match this summer, it’s got to be good. I’ve got to play well. You look at how competitive my position is, it always feels that the person who slips up first is going to be the one that misses out.”
Zak Crawley, the England and Kent opening batsman, and Callum Clark, the former back-rower who is now Saracens’ head of psychological performance, are among Earl’s close confidants. As far as easing his England frustrations, though, perseverance is the only solution. And a performance against Sale would represent a perfect start to the summer.
“I lean on a few people but, at the end of the day, it’s my problem and I’ve got to fix it,” Earl said of his Test omissions. “The moment you start looking for excuses, the moment you start saying ‘I’m just unlucky’ or ‘my face doesn’t fit’ is probably the moment you give somebody the reason to drop you. I’ve got to stay with it.
“Steve was unbelievably positive about my work in the Six Nations. Unfortunately, selection didn’t always go my way, but I’m trying to stay positive and put my best foot forward in these big games, which are probably the games he’s looking at the most.”