Max Malins looks set to leave Saracens for Bristol Bears at the end of the season.
Telegraph Sport understands that the 25-year-old, who has 14 caps for England, has held talks over rejoining Pat Lam at Ashton Gate for the 2023-24 campaign, having spent a successful year there on loan between 2020 and 2021.
A desire for more game time at full-back, his preferred position, is thought to be among the chief motivations for Malins and sources have indicated that he has opted against extending his Saracens contract.
The presence of both Alex Goode and Elliot Daly has made it difficult for Malins to feature at full-back for Saracens. Indeed, he has only started there three times in 2022. In one of those matches, against Worcester, Malins scored four tries.
Just this week, Mark McCall, the Saracens director of rugby, laid out the complications of keeping a squad together under current salary cap constraints and how early business is being done. Next season is the last with the Premiership cap at its current level of £5 million plus up to £1.4m in credits. The ceiling is set to rise again for 2024-25.
“It’s hugely complicated and it’s one of the more difficult puzzles you can do,” McCall explained.
“We had some plus-one contracts the players had signed a while back. In the past, you wouldn’t start to have conversations about what is going to happen this year and the year after until October or November. Those conversations began on day one of pre-season, to be honest, about understanding where people want to be in a year’s time.
“With those are people who have got plus-one contracts on both sides, it was important to know where they were going to be because every decision has an effect on someone else. There will have to be difficult decisions made and we need to be skilful about how we do that.”
It would appear that Malins is a player that McCall has been unable to retain. Given that Charles Piutau is in the last year of his contract, and Ioan Lloyd has chosen to target inside centre as his long-term position, he should have plenty of opportunities in the No 15 shirt for Bristol.
Malins has only started once for England at full-back, against France in the 2021 Six Nations. Since then, the emergence of Freddie Steward caused him to shirt to the wing. His five subsequent Test starts came on the wing, before Malins was dropped for the last match of the 2022 Six Nations in Paris and then missed out on the July tour of Australia.
He has remained prolific at club level, however, and has now scored 19 tries in his last 17 Premiership matches for Saracens. Before that, he enjoyed a fruitful loan spell with Bristol, scoring 18 tries in 19 matches across all competitions after joining Lam’s squad when Saracens were relegated following the salary cap scandal.
Malins and Ben Earl, a fellow Saracens academy graduate, were huge hits at Bristol. At the beginning of last season, Lam praised them for embracing a different playing philosophy.
“Those boys came in to play the Bears way,” said the Bristol director of rugby a year ago. “We didn’t play the Max Malins or the Ben Earl way, they came in and excelled because they got to know what our game was and they got a chance to experience and play it.”
Bristol won the 2020 European Challenge Cup with Malins, a former age-grade fly-half once likened to Beauden Barrett by Mark McCall for his versatility and balanced running, starting at full-back and scoring a try in the final against Toulon.
Bears then topped the table in the regular Premiership season before losing to Harlequins in the play-off semi-final, despite a hat-trick from Malins.
England's fascinating traffic jam of full-backs
The depth that any given country possesses in any given position often seems to rise and fall like waves. A few short years ago, for instance, it felt as though England lacked openside flankers. Now there are about four or five fighting to catch the eye of Eddie Jones.
Full-back is another area that would appear to be at high tide, and Malins looks to have taken the proactive decision to ensure that he is in his preferred position as often as possible.
It will not have been easy to opt against staying at Saracens, his boyhood club, but makes a lot of sense – not least because Malins’ poise and intuition suits Lam’s possession-based approach. That much was apparent during a glittering loan spell.
For the rest of this season, Malins will probably remain on the wing for Saracens as Daly and Goode share the No 15 shirt. This is the compromise he had to make for England since Steward’s emergence, as well.
His high-ball skills and defensive tenacity, especially when chasing kicks, have improved over the past couple of years, and Malins is a veritable try machine at club level. However, he evidently feels more comfortable at full-back – and that is obviously important to him.
Around the Premiership, similar situations are playing out. Northampton Saints, for instance, have both George Furbank and Tommy Freeman. The former started at full-back for England as recently as six months ago in the loss to France.
Furbank is a classy, pacey playmaker. Freeman is England’s incumbent left wing, yet could eventually settle as a full-back and featured there against the Barbarians last summer.
Ali Crossdale switched from Saracens to Wasps in 2021. Tom de Glanville continues to progress at Bath.
London Irish are intent on keeping Henry Arundell at full-back. The Exiles also boast James Stokes and Tom Parton, who is out of contract at the end of this season and has been linked to Saracens.
Leicester Tigers tied down Steward and also have Anthony Watson, one of Jones’ favourites, on their books. The latter enjoys the No 15 jersey.
Back-three roles are interchangeable, of course. Arundell looks set to continue his Test introduction as a wing and will be encouraged to swing off his flank searching for the ball in phase-play, something he is doing for Irish as a full-back anyway.
Adopting a wider perspective on things, Malins joining Bristol would continue one trend of the Premiership’s salary-cap reduction – a redistribution of talent around the league.
Other textbook examples include Saracens losing Vincent Koch to Wasps and Sale Sharks acquiring both Jonny Hill and Tom O’Flaherty from Exeter Chiefs.
Bristol would have to make room in their cap for Malins but, for Premiership officials hoping to make the competition more marketable, these stories are much more preferable than an exodus of peak performers to the Top 14 or Japan.
England supporters benefit, too, because Malins is backing himself to break back into the international reckoning.