Ben Earl: ‘I want to be one of the world’s best - it’s time for England’s big game players to turn up’

Ben Earl starts at number eight for England against Fiji  (Getty Images)
Ben Earl starts at number eight for England against Fiji (Getty Images)

It has been an oft-raised question over the last four years during their muddled build-up to this World Cup - who are the world-class players in England rugby’s side? Many a rugby watcher has busied idle fingers by sketching out a composite World XV to busy idle fingers - few would have included a single Englishman among their dream 15 before this tournament.

England, it seems, have noticed.

“You see a lot of stuff on social media about world 15s and stuff and there’s probably not a huge amount of representation from England in that regard,” says flanker Ben Earl ahead of their quarter-final meeting with Argentina. “A lot of people don’t think there’s that many of us in there.

“It’s just an opinion, but at the same time we know the quality we’ve got and we know that on any given day, some of the players we have got on our team turn up and we become a very, very hard team to beat. It’s kind of now or never on Sunday.”

There is a broader point here, perhaps, about the degradation of the England squad since 2019, when Eddie Jones fielded the youngest team in a World Cup final in the professional era. There are a raft of players who have risen to a top class level in the past, particularly during that tournament, but for a nation of such rich rugby resources, right now England are short of the sort of characters who can take over this sort of knockout contest. If Steve Borthwick’s side are to have a World Cup life beyond this weekend, that group - Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, Tom Curry - may have to rise again.

Or is this a time for the ascension of new faces? Earl has been among England’s best at this tournament, dynamic in the loose and tight, emerging as a regular international starter for the first time after spending the first couple of years of his England career confined to a bench role.

A schoolboy star, Ben Earl the prospect was known long before Ben Earl the player. An uber-talented all-round sportsman, who was part of Kent cricket’s academy and swam for his county. He came up through Tonbridge School and then Saracens, two English institutions where success is an expectation. With that sort of pedigree, the step-up to this sort of stage should come naturally, then?

Earl isn’t yet sure. “I’ve not played really, really big games like this a huge amount. This is as big as it gets - we lose and we go home on Monday. That’s the reality of where we are.

“If you want to be classed as one of the best players in the world, you’ve got to start turning up at games like this - and that’s something I want to be classed as. I guess we’ll find out on Sunday.

“These are the stages that we want to be involved in. You find out a lot about your teammates, find out a lot about yourself.

“I remember watching us against Australia in the quarters and then New Zealand in the semis [at the 2019 World Cup]. They were two of the most dominant England performances for some time. We’ve been speaking a lot all week about it being time for our big game players to start turning up. We’ve all got a responsibility to do that.”

With Borthwick again favouring two regular opensides in the back row, withholding Billy Vunipola in a bench role once more, Earl will be a crucial figure. The back rower was part of the Saracens side thrown off course by Levani Botia’s breakdown brilliance as La Rochelle knocked them out of the Champions Cup. Earl is desperate to avoid a repeat.

“As an aspiring seven, he put on a bit of a clinic in terms of how to dominate a defensive breakdown and get in the referee’s eye early, and they fed off that. We know he’s a classy operator, we know he’s probably one of the best players in the world.

“It’s something we’re going to have to be ready for and something we’ve spoken long and hard about. A lot of the narrative is back row versus back row but I think the game more so than ever is a 15-man effort with a player like him. He can pop up at any moment in any part of the pitch.

“When you play Fiji, you know the threats they have got. Maybe ten or 15 years ago they were a team that always had magic moments with big players, but you felt like you could outlast them in a game.

That’s not the case any more. They are physically as good as anyone if not better. They’re now one-to-23 playing in the best leagues in the world against the best players in the world. We can’t wait to test ourselves against those kind of players.”