Six Nations: Electric Ben Earl embodies England's new era after World Cup Eureka moment

Ben Earl was once an acquired Test-match taste, but England’s outspoken Saracen has stormed from Mr Marmite to the best No 8 since sliced bread.

The erudite 26-year-old loves two things: polarising opinion and splintering opposition defences.

To England’s full benefit, increasingly he focuses on the latter, but the Redhill native still knows how to get under people’s skin.

When he is not calling out pundits for perceived slights against England, Earl is calling himself out instead, having publicly challenged himself to become a world-class back-row forward.

Earl ran amok as England toppled the mighty Ireland 23-22 at Twickenham on Saturday, denying the visitors’ quest for successive Six Nations Grand Slams.

The Comparative Literature graduate was still on the field of victory when he skewered a second set of foes, the naysaying pundits, to the TV cameras.

Several withering lines later, Earl had poleaxed the ex-players that had laid into England after their 30-21 loss to Scotland – then sat down former Lions star Jamie Heaslip for claiming Ireland could only lose at Twickenham if reduced to 13 men.

Ben Earl has been England’s most important player since the start of the World Cup (Getty Images)
Ben Earl has been England’s most important player since the start of the World Cup (Getty Images)

To the victor goes the right of reply, and Earl piled in to full effect – a feat he will look to repeat when England complete their Six Nations campaign against France in Lyon.

Earl loves celebrating rugby’s little wins with big celebrations, a fist-pump from an opposition’s crooked lineout still springs to his own mind whenever he reviews the tendency.

He has seen all the social media quips and David Brent memes, but in Earl’s world, the international arena is his Office – and he wants to climb the ladder all the way to the top.

His attitude and mindset could not be further from a mockumentary though. Earl has already faced plenty of adversity in his rugby career, each time emerging stronger, smarter and more accomplished.

This time last year Earl could still not force his way into the England lineup. Just 12 months on, he not only commands a Red Rose starting berth but also merits comparison with the world’s best back-rowers.

Earlier this week he insisted his quest for global domination has hardly even started. His relentless drive for self-improvement has raised the standard among his Test team-mates too, in the eyes of England’s exacting conditioning boss Aled Walters.

England’s win over Ireland last weekend represented a milestone victory for head coach Steve Borthwick and his developing tenure.

Even though England finished third at the World Cup in October, this was Borthwick’s first win over a higher-ranked team in his 20 matches at the helm.

Borthwick inherited an England squad and set-up wholly broken by the erratic and impulsive end of Eddie Jones’ reign. Former England captain Borthwick healed fractured confidence, built a World Cup team in his doughty image – and behind the scenes plotted for a full reset in 2024.

England have an all-new, high-risk, high-reward blitz defensive system, and an equally bold fresh attacking strategy. If the World Cup plan was route-one, this new iteration is Borthwick’s answer to keep-ball.

Through his ascent to England mainstay status, Earl comes to embody this new Red Rose era, this next generation of Twickenham totems. Wing Immanuel Feyi-Waboso is the Exeter University medical student-cum-clinical finisher – pun entirely intended – whose break set England racing to the winning score against Ireland.

Leicester powerhouse forwards George Martin and Ollie Chessum could stoke England’s engine room for the next decade, with the bulk and quality to match the world’s toughest operators.

Alex Mitchell has been given licence to accelerate the tempo at scrum-half, with Harlequins livewire No 10 Marcus Smith ready to thrill now he is restored to full fitness.

Laid back off the pitch, Chandler Cunningham-South delivers brutal power and pace on it, to add further heft to the back-row.

England’s ranks needed refreshing after the World Cup watershed, and astute boss Borthwick is well on his way to rotating through this new crop. Earl might not fill the archetypal No 8 mould, stretching to 6ft tall perhaps on tiptoes.

The World Cup was his Eureka moment: now Earl can become England’s Einstein loose forward

But what he concedes in terms of bulk or height, he more than gives back in pace, power, incision and accuracy. If Earl has had to work around the limits of his frame, he never expected that his face would not fit.

Earl appeared to the elite sports manor born when excelling in both cricket and rugby at Tonbridge School, while also dabbling in a single-figures golf handicap in his spare time.

Earl breezed through the England age groups, but despite a Test debut in 2020 could not convince Aussie boss Jones of his powers.

Not even the 2022 Premiership player of the season award would be enough to sway Jones’ thinking – and the early stages of Borthwick’s leadership proved similarly frustrating.

But then Borthwick told Earl exactly what to work on, and not for the first time, he met the challenge head-on. The World Cup was his Eureka moment: now Earl can become England’s Einstein loose forward.