England vs Ireland: Ben Earl backed by Eddie Jones to lead new generation of ‘hybrid’ forwards playing in the backs

Young Saracens forward has been training to cover both outside centre and wing as a result of Jones’s new six-two split among his replacements in the belief it is a sign of the times

Jack de Menezes
Sunday 23 February 2020 09:38 GMT
England vs Ireland Six Nations preview

England rookie Ben Earl will be relied upon to cover the backline after Eddie Jones identified the young back-row as a glimpse of the future of rugby union.

Jones has long spoken of the ability of players to crossover between forwards and backs in the modern era, having previously talked up Exeter’s Jack Nowell as a potential flanker despite plying his trade in the back three, and ahead of today’s Six Nations clash against Ireland he identified the latest “hybrid” that he feels could be deployed outside of his natural position.

The England head coach appeared to step down a touch from where he feels Nowell is best deployed, which is no surprise after the Australian admitted on Friday that the wing is set to miss the entire Six Nations with injury. But instead he offered a contrasting opinion by claiming the game-wide shift towards larger, more physical players means that there will come a time when forwards start moving to the back line on a permanent basis.

“It will never happen that a back plays in the forwards full-time,” Jones said, “but a forward could play in the backs full-time.

“That's the way the game is going at the moment. Ben Earls could be potentially someone like that, like (Levani) Botia, the Fijian who plays at six and 12 for La Rochelle. I think those sort of players are going to become massively invaluable as the game keeps going down the track it is at the moment where there's not much space, you need pace, you need dynamism, and if you can get a bit of that either in the back row or in your centres through different sorts of players, I think it is definitely something that could happen.”

Earl may be just 22 years old, but in coming back into the squad for this year’s Six Nations campaign and impressing enough in his debut two weeks ago against Scotland, Jones believes he has a gem of an individual that may set the tone for the type of hybrid player he suggests will take a grip on the game.

The Saracens flanker, who is expected in the coming weeks to agree a deal to join Bristol Bears on loan to maintain his England hopes while his club are relegated to the Championship next season, pipped Northampton Saints forward Lewis Ludlam to a place on the replacements’ bench against the Irish.

Earl, like Ludlam, is able to play across the back row and replaced Sam Underhill at openside flanker against Scotland to make his Test debut despite plying his trade largely in the No 8 shirt this season at Saracens in Billy Vunipola’s absence. Yet his dynamism across the game helped to sway Jones’s selection in his favour, and whether it was his latest distraction technique or a genuine revelation, Jones revealed that Earl has already been getting a taste of life outside of the pack.

“He could play possibly 13 or possibly blindside winger,” claimed Jones. “He has done a bit of work for us at blindside winger already. It could eventuate that we use him in a game.

“He’s on the rise at the moment. Lewis has probably flattened out a little bit but that’s common with young players. Ben Earl gives that dynamism. He’s that hybrid-type player who can play back row with pace and skill but also play in the back line with pace and skill.”

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