Ben Earl is panting heavily as he sits down on a grassy bank in Bristol’s new £ 11.5m training facility – the England flanker already embraces his new environment with a neatly sculpted West Country mullet.
He plunges himself next to roommate, teammate and fellow loaner Max Malins minutes after a grueling session and extra defensive work in 32 degree heat to talk about a weird week.
While the sweat is pouring from him and an isotonic drink in his hand, he initially has trouble speaking.
Max Malins (L) and Ben Earl (R) set out to prove a point when facing parent club Saracens
‘Oi Oi Oi!’ Earl, 22, sighs with a grimace.
“As long as you make it clear, we got off the training field in no time!” Based on this evidence, there is no chance that he will take Saturday’s game lightly.
This is not just a first since March, nor just a debut for Bristol. It’s against Saracens – his mother club that he returns to next summer with Malins.
So the strangest years just got weirder.
Earl was happy in the colors of Saracens, but enjoys meeting them with Bristol on Saturday
“We’ve talked about this for ages,” Earl tells Malins.
‘It’s going to be a weird one. It is dead silence for everyone in London, so I think they will come and get us!
“It’s a rugby game – you have to play the best you can and we’ll all be buddies at the end, but it’s going to be a weird one to begin with.” Malins adds: ‘You know they are coming to get you, but at the same time it is our club and if you are involved you want to do it right and show them something.
There are certainly mixed feelings. I’m sure there will be a chat! The pair have pretty much settled into Bristol life and share a flat in Clifton – five minutes from the new training site – and when they’re not there it’s coffee, walks on the Downs and hours of watching the cricket.
Earl is friends with English batsman Ollie Pope and went to school with Zak Crawley. A ‘medium’ bowler himself, he took five wickets in the annual Saracens squad match last year, with Malins hitting half a century.
The duo is committed to their new temporary life in Bristol, but will not go too far.
Malins (above) joined Earl to move to Bristol to continue the Premiership campaign
“When will you get the Bears tattoo boys ?!” Dave Attwood disappoints from afar.
It will be a surreal experience for Earl as he pits against Maro Itoje, Jamie George and the Vunipolas.
Both he and Malins, who isn’t fit to play today after a few lockdown punches, have been kicked out of the Sarries WhatsApp groups and discussed how on earth they’ll celebrate in case they score a try.
“I’m not sure Ben can do the old big breast pump!” laughs Malins
Earl continues, “If I’m lucky enough to score, I think I’ll be very calm and try to run back to the halfway point.” Malins objects, “We were talking about celebrating the Liam Williams celebration of the” soothing “hands!” ‘Brilliant!’ giggles Earl who is about to play half the couch at Ashton Gate.
Earl admits that it was made clear that his place in England was in danger if he dropped to the championship
‘We don’t want to despise our teammates – they’ve been great with us for four or five years. We will be respectful, but will play hard.
‘We don’t have any credit in the bank here – we have yet to prove ourselves – and the only way to do that is to play hard. The guys in the club will respect you more if you go faster than softer. ‘
It’s been a crazy few months for this couple. With the saga of salary caps swamping the Saracens, it quickly became apparent that, unlike the established English internationals, young people would have to relocate to accelerate their development.
“When the news came out, Eddie Jones was pretty clear he wouldn’t pick me if I didn’t play in the Premiership,” said Earl, who made his Test debut at the Six Nations in February.
“When he says your decision is almost made.” Initially, clubs only wanted Sarries starlets on permanent deals.
“But then I got a call from Pat Lam,” explains 23-year-old Malins.
He said he lives in the present and wants the strongest possible team at Bristol, told us what he wanted to achieve and offered the loan.
“When I saw this training facility, how well they are doing, growing, it became an exciting prospect.” With Bears director of rugby Lam picking up the two best Sarries prospects – Earl the big, fast flanker and Malins being touted as a ‘young Beauden Barrett’ as a fullback or fly-half – others followed.
Nick Isiekwe went to Northampton, Jack Singleton Gloucester, Nick Tompkins Dragons and Alex Lozowski Montpellier – they will all be back next summer and have re-committed to Saracens for years to come.
Both Malins and Earl were expelled from the Sarries Whatsapp group after their loan
Of course, when these two are talking about the Bears, it’s not always ‘we’ or ‘us’ – usually still ‘Bristol’ with Saracens as ‘the club’ – but that will definitely change when the couple goes to bed and starts to fight for honors.
Both have already won Premiership medals, having played a handful of games last season, but Bristol fans need not worry that they are just a season and a half out of the west for cruising.
“We are very much here to win and think we can,” said Earl.
“We’re in the early stages of our career, so we’re here to learn, get a new perspective, but also win trophies.”
Malins – who will learn from superstars Semi Radradra and Charles Piutau – adds: “This playgroup has a lot of potential and can go a long way.” The move to Bristol is sure to be a great success for both, but will there be any blame for not making it through the championship with their relegated friends?
Owen Farrell will miss the clash, but stars like Maro Itoje will play in Saturday’s game
“We get a chat from the guys sticking it out,” says Malins.
“I would have liked to, but if I played championship rugby next season, I wouldn’t necessarily make progress as a player like I would in the premier league.”
Earl added: ‘I definitely feel guilty that when it comes to 10 years later and we have hopefully had illustrious careers and won many things for the club, it will be hard to say we weren’t there during the difficult times.
“But it would have been considered a wasted year, so we had to make the most of it.” After the lockdown, the move and everything that came with it, it was destiny that this would be the first game in 22 weeks. On Wednesday, Earl’s mullet was turned down in preparation – he must mean business.
“I wouldn’t want another game,” he says.