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“It was written in the stars, wasn’t it?” laughs Ben Earl, before his tone becomes more serious. “On reflection, there’s no other game I’d rather have first”.
Earl is talking about tonight’s Premiership opener, his first match in a Saracens shirt since February 2020. Almost inevitably it comes at Bristol Bears, where he spent more than a season on loan as Saracens shed weight for their season in the naughty corner (in this case, the Championship).
It sees Earl come neatly full circle. Weirdly, his Bristol debut 13 months ago – as the 2019/20 season was belatedly finished in a hurry – came against Saracens.
That Earl is excited to be back is evident.
“I’ve loved it,” he tells Standard Sport. “It’s almost like that first day back of school feeling, where you know all the faces and the relationships, you just get them going again.
“It is the same place. It still has the same culture, the same love for the individual and the same appreciation for life outside rugby. But [the club] has definitely learnt a lot, it’s been humbled in many regards. It now has a new lease of life, and everyone just can’t wait to get going.”
That is not to say Earl and the other Saracens who went out on loan during the Championship season are ungrateful for the experiences they had. Nick Tompkins and the the injured Alex Goode returned at the end of last season, while Earl (at openside), Alex Lozowski and Nick Isiekwe all make their comebacks tonight. Max Malins, who was with Earl in Bristol, will have to wait a couple more weeks because of injury.
“The opportunity Max and I had for a year was invaluable,” he says. “We have both said we left as academy graduates with potential. I’d like to think we return a more polished product. We know a lot more about our own games, but we know a lot more about the game in general as well. That perspective being at a different club, environment, system – you wouldn’t get that opportunity in any other situation. We fully threw ourselves in for more than a year.”
Earl says he kept an eye on Sarries’ results, but adds “we gave everything to that club [Bristol] for a year, and I have no regrets”. He believes he returns more “mature” and “battle-hardened”. Now, he says, it is time to show how much he has improved and to repay Saracens’ faith in him.
“We [the loanees] know how fortunate we are in terms of the club giving us that opportunity,” he says. “We have spoken about our guilt about missing those tough days in the Championship, days where motivation could have been quite low. We appreciate the effort the boys put in on our behalf and the club’s behalf over the year. We are just grateful, and I guess now it’s time to give back.”
Earl clearly feels he has a bit to prove. He spent what he describes as “a really nice re-centring summer” just “playing golf, relaxing, and spending time with family”. It was the longest break he had had in years, but that is because he was not involved with England, despite senior players being away with the Lions and winning 13 caps – all from the bench – over the last 18 months.
“I was available,” he said. “They wanted to try new faces, it wasn’t up to me. Eddie and I have spoken about where he thought my game was at, and what was best for me. We have spoken about that and are both on the same page.”
The summer off, he says, meant he had “never been more motivated” to get back on the field. “Like I said, it’s a new beginning for me and my career,” he adds. “Like the squad I have a new lease of life. I hope I can get back into the conversation.”