It was exactly what England needed, right when they needed it. It had been a disastrous six minutes for Steve Borthwick’s side, Ollie Chessum’s sin binning compounded by Ethan Roots’ hauling down of a maul; suddenly, England were down two men and seven points having controlled the flow of the opening quarter and threatening to capitulate.
Maro Itoje’s smothering of Ioan Lloyd soon after the restart gave England an opportunity, but it was Ben Earl who ensured they took it. Surveying the situation in front of him, Earl would not have felt encouraged as he bound in at the base of England’s seven-man scrum five metres from the Wales line. If the presence of wing Tommy Freeman packing down on the openside flank was worry enough, then the identity of the left-hand lock that he was grabbing on to would have given Earl a real fright, Sam Underhill surely the smallest second row England have ever employed, even in an emergency.
The job for Earl, it seemed, was simple – extract, escape, and allow England’s attack to reload from stabler breakdown ball. He went one better. Corralling Jamie George’s hook with his left foot, the number eight was away in a flash on a carronade charge. Wrestling through Alex Mann’s tackle, Earl brushed aside Sam Costelow and forced through Cameron Winnett just enough to unfurl his left arm. A firm place of the ball on the line, and England were on the board.
Such set-piece scores have become vanishingly rare but showed Earl’s explosive skillset. Team manager Richard Hill collared Earl in the dressing room, urging him to seek out Lawrence Dallaglio’s not dissimilar score against Wales in 2000 – Earl is not yet close to keeping that sort of company but he is becoming a fine Test eight.
“I think it’s my first try at Twickenham, so I was pretty pleased with that,” the Saracens back rower said afterwards. “I think the ball popped out of the scrum so I don’t know how I managed that.
“I was just trying to get as wide as I could, and the next thing I knew, the try line was below me, so I just reached out and touched down.”
It is strange to think that the Earl of a year ago would have been considered something of a makeshift number eight. While his versatility has always been valued, it is on the openside that the 26-year-old has largely starred for Saracens, and where, until September, he’d might have said he enjoyed his rugby most.
His development into one of international rugby’s most consistent operators at the base of the scrum has perhaps taken even Earl himself by surprise. His installation at the position on a more permanent basis was something of a marriage of convenience for England: had Billy Vunipola not been banned for their World Cup opener against Argentina, there is every chance that Earl would have begun the tournament on the bench.
But Earl seized his opportunity in France, building from that tenacious start to become one of the standout players of the tournament. He entered this Six Nations as England’s undisputed eight man – a remarkable transformation for someone who earned his first 15 international caps from the bench.
An injury soon after returning from France threatened to stall his momentum, but the 26-year-old used it for a chance to reappraise his skillset; he has learned to love life with an eight on his back.
“I had that time out injured, so I had a bit of a think about what I needed in terms of contributing to this team, and me as a player,” Earl explained. “I’m about two kilos heavier than I was probably during the World Cup. I’ve put on a bit of lean mass.
“[Attack coach] Richard Wigglesworth has been really clear with me in terms of giving me a bit of a free role in terms of where I pop up. It suits my game massively. Last week, for example, I probably carried a bit more off nine than I did this week. I’m loving playing for this team and being a part of it.”
Earl has publicly set the loftiest of goals for 2024, declaring again in a recent interview that he wants to establish himself as one of the best players in the world. During the World Cup, he spoke about wanting to prove himself as a big-game player who stood up in the tough moments. His try at Twickenham on Saturday showed he is becoming that sort of figure.
“I feel like the whole team in general, our backs were against the wall. We got together and said ‘look, it feels like we’re not getting the rub of the green here from the ref and/or the context of the game, so we need to almost bunker down or come out swinging in a way’.
“Other England teams, previous regimes, we maybe might have gone into our shells and reverted to an individual focus, but we just said how collected we were and how aligned we were in our messaging and in our next actions, so we were really pleased.
“I think everyone knew that our game had to evolve a little bit, if not a fair amount, after the World Cup. The way that we built our cornerstones of our game during that campaign, then coming into this, I felt like we had to improve.
“We almost felt like we dominated in attack last week, while this week we felt like we kind of dominated in defence. We’ve probably got to match what we’re doing up, and hopefully that comes through against Scotland.”