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Earl and England search for World Cup finesse against Fiji to win fans back | England rugby union team


Eddie Jones had a theory when he was coaching England that you needed five world-class players to win the World Cup. Clive Woodward, the only coach to do so with England, had a similar, if more ambitious mantra, specifically instructing his players to set about becoming the best in the world in their position.

Picking a world XV is entirely subjective but it is fair to say that not many England players would make it into most of those selected. There would be significantly more from Fiji – their World Cup quarter-final opponents on Sunday – in a lot of them, given the star qualities of Levani Botia, Semi Radradra and Waisea Nayacalevu to name three. That rankles with England and Ben Earl, who starts at No 8, in particular.

Earl is an interesting member of this side because he is not part of the tranche of players for whom this is the last dance – a final crack at the ultimate prize that eluded them four years ago in Japan before they call time on their international careers. Nor is he moving abroad. Rather, in what will be a markedly different England from 2024 onwards, Earl, now 25 and soon entering his prime, is someone around whom Steve Borthwick will hope to build his side. How he and England perform in the knockout stages of this tournament will go some way towards the recognition he craves.

“You see a lot of stuff on social media about world XVs and there’s probably not a huge amount of representation from England in that regard,” says Earl. “A lot of people don’t think there’s that many of us in there. So, these are the opportunities. These are the stages that we want to be involved in.

“You always want to be in those conversations. It’s just an opinion, but at the same time we know the quality we’ve got and we know that on any given day, some of the players we have got on our team turn up and we become a very, very hard team to beat. It’s kind of now or never on Sunday. No one wants to be flying back to London on Monday morning. So we’re going to go out there and perform our best and see what happens.”

Earl readily says this is the biggest match of his career despite playing in major domestic finals with Saracens. When asked if he has big-match pedigree, he is honest enough to say: “I don’t know yet, because I’ve not played really, really big games like this a huge amount.

“This is as big as it gets – we lose and we go home and that’s not something I’ve given a huge amount of thought to. But that’s the reality of where we are. If you want to be classed as one of the best players in the world, you’ve got to start turning up at games like this and that’s something I want to be classed as.”

The perceived under-representation Earl highlights raises a wider point. Are England players simply not good enough to be discussed as genuinely elite? Their best have gone sideways or backwards since the 2019 World Cup and the pathways have dried up. Are they underrated or simply unloved? Billy Vunipola’s claim this week that England are happy to be “public enemy No 1” was made in reference to how Fiji are everybody’s second-favourite team.

England’s Freddie Steward and Alex Mitchell climb a tower during training.
England’s Freddie Steward and Alex Mitchell climb a tower during training. Photograph: David Davies/PA

The inference being that few people outside England care much for them. But what about their own supporters? Because there is an inescapable sense of apathy among them, a disconnect between the side and their fans, however hard Borthwick and his employers try to argue otherwise.

To be in Lille for the one-point victory against Samoa last Saturday, to witness the England captain being booed, was to see how close a clear sense of frustration remains. It was to be transported back to the warm-up matches and to so many games in the second half of Jones’s tenure, when the ennui set in. That is not Borthwick’s fault but compare how quickly Brendon McCullum re-engaged the national cricket team with their fans, the manner in which Gareth Southgate did similarly in football and it is clear that Farrell and company still trail behind significantly; it is no coincidence so many tickets were still available for Sunday’s match at the start of the week.

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The exception in Borthwick’s tenure has been their opening match of the World Cup. Tom Curry was sent off inside three minutes and, suddenly, England fans had a cause they could get behind. For they love nothing more than a backs-to-the-wall performance, when England must stiffen the sinews against the odds. It was the same when Charlie Ewels was sent off against Ireland at Twickenham after 82 seconds, but the problem has been England’s failure to connect with their fans without the catalyst of adversity.

As Jamie George said this past week: “Have the performances been consistently good enough over the last couple of years? No. So do I understand why the support might dip in and out? Yes. And there might have been frustration because ultimately I’m the same, I want England to win every week and I want us to perform as well as we possibly can.

“We spoke a lot before this tournament about how important it was for us to take our fans on a journey and it feels like we’re doing that. Hopefully, a good performance on the weekend and a victory leads many more people to support back home who potentially might not be.”

Increasingly, then, this quarter-final feels like a seminal moment. Win well, with Marcus Smith at his swashbuckling best, and suddenly England head to Paris for the semi-finals with the sort of positivity that may make the country sit up and take note.

To return to the round-ball comparisons, just like the footballers at the 2018 World Cup, England have had a favourable draw and this could be the tournament that changes public perception around them. Defeat, however, would represent an upset akin to Iceland at Euro 2016 and would lead to inquest, recrimination and maybe the world renown that Earl seeks, for all the wrong reasons.


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