Ben Earl accepts there is a new expectation on his shoulders to perform “like an England international” should after returning to Eddie Jones’s squad for their Six Nations showdown against Italy, despite having just three international caps to his name.
The 22-year-old made his England debut towards the start of the year in the Six Nations victory over Scotland, which proved the first of three replacements appearances as he broke into Jones’s squad.
Had England’s final weekend encounter against Italy gone ahead, Earl looked certain to make his fourth appearance, but like the rest of the squad he has been forced to wait more than seven months to wear the red rose once again, with this weekend finally set to see the 2020 Six Nations conclude.
Since making his last England appearance, Earl has upped sticks and joined Bristol Bears on loan from relegated Saracens, played in the Premiership semi-finals and become a European champion once again thanks to Bristol’s Challenge Cup final victory over Toulon earlier this month.
That success combined with his form over the course of the 2019/20 season has many calling for his inclusion in Jones’s plans this autumn, although the back-row forward admits that he is no longer the wide-eyes rookie that walked into the international camp at the start of the year happy to be making up the numbers.
“I would say that’s probably fair in the regard that there certainly is an expectation on me to perform like I’m an England international, whether that’s with the club or whether that’s training here,” said Earl.
“I think you’ve got to realise how competitive it is and to almost not put too much pressure on yourself. You’re only as good as your last game and those three caps that I had over the Six Nations basically count for nothing now. Everyone’s playing on a pretty level playing field and it’s now all about how well you can prepare for this game on Saturday and try to stick your hand up for selection.”
The problem for Earl is that he finds himself among England’s most competitive position with enough flankers of international calibre to fill half a team. Tom Curry and Sam Underhill forged a successful pairing throughout the 2019/20 campaign, while Mark Wilson and Lewis Ludlam have also been on the scene in recent times, and although the former has been ruled out of this week’s squad with injury, the emergence of Jack Willis along with young Worcester captain Ted Hill has given England boss Jones plenty to ponder.
Both Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje have also spent time in the back row, and it gives England an embarrassment of riches when it comes to selection.
One strength of Earl’s is that he can play across the entirety of the back row - as well as at centre if Jones’s past comments are to be taken at face value - and though they have not discussed whether he enters the autumn as an out-and-out No 8 to rival Billy Vunipola or one of the many options on the flank, he hopes that versatility helps to sway selection in his favour.
“I haven’t had a conversation as such but I think I know what he (Jones) expects of me,” Earl added. “Obviously versatility is something I am able to offer. If I play my natural game that versatility can only help me in whatever role I play in the squad.
“Like I say I am trying to get better, learn from this amazing group of back-rowers we have here and try to put my best foot forward to be involved on Saturday.”
The man who gets to work closest with the plethora of loose forwards is Matt Proudfoot, the former Springboks forwards coach that was recruited by Jones following last November’s Rugby World Cup final victory over England. Having kept tabs on his players throughout lockdown, Proudfoot makes it clear that Earl, like everyone else, was given specific areas of his game to improve.
From what he produced in the second half of the season, combined with his efforts since coming into camp last week, it appears he has ticked a few boxes.
“It depends on how you want to use him, and where you put his skill set?” said Proudfoot.
“He has such a dynamic skill set. We created a role for him in training and on both sides of the ball he was really dynamic. That’s the growth we’ve seen in – he’s really looking on both sides of the ball now. Tom Curry and Sam Underhill are in the same mould. We have a great variety there.”
But selection is no easy task. With Vunipola back fully fit after missing the first four rounds of the Six Nations, three places looks likely to become two with Curry no longer required at No 8. That leaves the two flanks to fight for, and should Jones stick with his World Cup finalist unit, Curry and Underhill will occupy the number six and seven shirts, leaving Earl and Willis to fight for a place on the bench.
Jones could yet to shake it up though. It mirrors a similar circumstance in the front row, where Mako Vunipola, the tried and tested loosehead prop, is being pushed further and further by the emerging Ellis Genge. So at what point does credit in the bank run out when untapped potential arrives?
“It is all about the performance the players are putting in training,” Proudfoot explained. “How well they are training and how much growth they are showing.
“Growth is important because if a younger guy grows it forces the older guy to grow. That’s been the philosophy in the team, that we promote growth in the players and are constantly seeking ways for them to improve. Then that competition helps improve the other player.”