Last Sunday two of the most talented young sportsmen in England sat down for a shared consolatory beer. Zak Crawley lost his Test place this year following a bad run with the bat while his close friend Ben Earl was omitted from Eddie Jones’s first squad camp of the season. You would have been quoted long odds on both scenarios a year ago.
It just goes to show how much form and, in particular, fortune can fluctuate, even for those imbued with unusual ability. It was barely 13 months ago that Crawley was scoring a memorable 267 against Pakistan while his old school mate, also 23, won his 13th consecutive England cap off the bench against Ireland in March. “We had a long chat about form and selection,” says Earl. “When we last sat down things were going brilliantly. We’ve both had our challenges since.”
The good news is that the pair, born four weeks apart, are determined to rise again. Having spent years chasing the same balls around – they both attended Tonbridge School, played Kent age-group cricket and now play golf together off single-figure handicaps – they have learned to appreciate each other’s counsel when life becomes slightly tougher. “Sometimes it’s nice to offload to someone who doesn’t have an agenda in rugby,” admits Earl. “I like to think it’s a relationship that helps us both. Have we struggled with selection and form at times? Yes, we have. But it’s nice to know it’s not just happening to you, it’s happening in other sports as well.”
It is a telling glimpse beneath the glossy cover of elite competition: even the highest flyers have to hang tough at times. There are currently several in that category at Saracens, with the Vunipola brothers and Jamie George also omitted from Jones’s initial squad. “Some people have been stung a little bit by what’s happened in the last few weeks and months,” says Earl crisply before the club’s trip to the early Premiership leaders, Leicester. “This group has never been more motivated, collectively or individually.”
“Rugby’s stuck in, I don’t want to say the stone age but it’s stuck in its ways, quite an alpha or beta-male environment
Most other countries would dearly love to be able to pick a player of Earl’s calibre. Bristol were certainly grateful to have him last season when, with Saracens relegated to the Championship, he spent a successful year on loan with the Bears. A seriously quick, dynamic athlete, he also hails from a family of high achievers. His mother, Belinda, was once the youngest chief executive of a FTSE500 retail company and was awarded an OBE in 2017 and his father, David, is a retired solicitor. Not every rugby international, either, has a degree in comparative literature from London’s Queen Mary University.
But none of that, ultimately, carries much weight when it comes to convincing Jones. With Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Sam Simmonds, Alex Dombrandt, Callum Chick, Lewis Ludlam, Lewis Ludlow, Ted Hill and Jack Kenningham all included in last month’s squad and the injured Jack Willis still to come back, competition to start in England’s back row has seldom been more intense.
Sometimes it feels as if Jones is endlessly searching for the impossible: a reincarnation of the great George Smith. Either way, it is odd that Earl has been chosen to play 13 Tests since first being selected to tour South Africa in 2018 but has yet to be trusted to make a single start. Not that the player is currently fussy about the number on his back. “I’d do anything to play again for England. It’s the pinnacle of the game and the best days of my career have involved wearing a rose on my shirt. That’s all the motivation I need. I’m not going out every weekend thinking: ‘I need to impress Eddie.’ I’ve just got to keep pounding away for the club and it’ll take care of itself.”
It does no harm that Saracens, uniquely in the Premiership, are looking to support and enhance their players’ mental health, having appointed the former England flanker Calum Clark as their “wellbeing and player development manager”. In Earl’s view it is already paying off. “I still think rugby is stuck in … I don’t want to say the stone age but it’s stuck in its ways. It’s quite an alpha- or beta-male environment … tough love, if you’re not playing just get on with it. It can get wearing at times.
“Being a young player can also be kind of a weird time. One week you’re starting, the next you’re on the bench, the next you’re not involved for whatever reason. Calum is there to … not soften the blow but to remind you that things are never as low as they feel. I’ve certainly been picking his brains and chatting away for the last couple of months. He’s been a massive help to me over my short career.”
The more the impressively articulate Earl talks, the more you wonder why the England management still seem faintly unconvinced. His mother started her working life as a Saturday assistant in the menswear department of her local Debenhams in Devon aged 16 and her elder son also does not lack for drive and quiet ambition. He is currently living in a north-west London building site – “We have a roof at the moment but I think it’s going soon” – amid renovations to his terraced home in Queen’s Park but his year in Bristol has opened his eyes to alternative horizons. “I’m always open to trying something new. I love rugby league, I love the NRL. If the opportunity ever arose later on, I’d love to give it a go.”
For now, though, propelling Saracens back to a happier place is his overriding priority. “I think the group’s got more perspective. It’s matured, it’s been humbled and is regrowing in a slightly new direction in terms of what is important. We’re chasing the same things but what’s important now is enjoyment, appreciating the position we’re in and feeling we’re growing as people and players. We’re hungrier than ever.”
And personally? “Almost every game you play these days you’re pitted against someone who wants to be in your position. Or vice versa. It’s brilliant. If I was looking for personal motivation I’ve got it every week. I’m only 23 and hopefully I’ve many years of playing ahead of me. I’ve just got to keep going. Things aren’t going to change overnight but you can always get the ball rolling.” As with the regal Crawley, English sport has not heard the last of the duke of Earl.