When rugby union does finally return in Europe, the Saracens saga will still be one of the most compelling storylines – not least because their Championship commitments may begin before their Premiership schedule is over.
The progress of Ben Earl, Nick Isiekwe and Max Malins will be one subplot of the next 15 months or so for Mark McCall’s side.
These are three academy graduates aged 23 and under, all with potential to become Test regulars for England before Rugby World Cup 2023, heading into intriguing loan agreements after signing long-term Saracens deals.
Earl and Malins will join up with Bristol Bears in August. Isiekwe is set for Northampton Saints. This should be an exciting, beneficial period for all concerned.
All three players offer genuine versatility, reflecting broad and modern skill bases. Look at the positional spread of their starts in Premiership and Champions Cup matches for Saracens to date:
Eddie Jones also says that he had Earl, an archetypal ‘hybrid’ player, training as a blindside wing during the Six Nations in case of an emergency. More on that later.
Here is a run-down of what to look out for from this Saracens trio when rugby resumes.
If social media is anything to go by, Northampton supporters’ reaction to Isiekwe’s unveiling has been strikingly mixed.
Among the disgruntled contingent of Saints fans, the main reservation seems to be that their recruit will re-join Saracens with a significant – and potentially match-winning – amount of intellectual property.
Having worked closely with George Kruis and Maro Itoje throughout his fledgling career, Isiekwe is an excellent lineout operator. An explosive jumper, who stands 6ft 7in tall, the 22 year-old also exudes intelligence around the set piece.
Lineout Nause, a highly insightful Twitter account, has highlighted this steal against Leicester Tigers in March:
With the heavy Will Skelton looking like the front jumper in a five-man set-up, Saracens’ coax their opponents into targeting Joe Batley.
Leicester take the bait. Isiekwe bolts past Skelton, who steps backwards so that his teammate does not close the gap so obviously as to concede a free-kick. Vincent Koch and Skelton support Isiekwe’s jump and he flips the ball skilfully to Mako Vunipola with one hand.
Isiekwe is clearly granted freedom to roam around the lineout and evidently possesses a sharp understanding of deception. This feint, against Saints, spawned another popular clip on Twitter:
This lineout fake from Nick Isiekwe 💯 Actor extraordinaire. pic.twitter.com/FGvl5sqda9— Crashball Rugby 🏉🖥 📰 (@_crashballrugby) April 8, 2018
To return to the game against Leicester this season, Isiekwe gathered 10 of Saracens’ throws. One of them launched this successful strike-move:
Northampton love running intricate, multi-phase attacks from similar platforms. Take this one, which saw George Furbank slice through against Lyon:
⚡️⚡️ This stunning @GeorgeFurbank effort swung the game back in favour of @SaintsRugby who kept their #HeinekenChampionsCup quarter-final hopes alive ⚡️⚡️— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) January 19, 2020
Superb work from @c_reinach and Dan Biggar to set up the flying full-back for this score 👏 pic.twitter.com/P3Ny5SK3Pr
Isiekwe has claimed 77 lineout throws in Premiership action in 2019-20 so far. No player has more.
He will definitely garner plenty of inside knowledge during his stint at Franklin’s Gardens. That is unavoidable. And, even though professional sport moves on quickly, Saints will not necessarily change their entire calling structure for the 2021-22 campaign.
When they come up against Isiekwe that season and in the future, they might have to confirm more calls in huddles prior to lineouts or come into the game with the first few set pieces pre-planned.
In short, they cannot be naïve to the threat of an informed Isiekwe. Of course, lineout forwards around the world do a huge amount of video analysis on opponents’ formations and habits anyway.
Chris Boyd has admitted that he was initially reluctant to bring in a Saracen, but struggled to replace Heinrich Brüssow. Citing “numerous” private conversations, Northampton’s head coach insisted Isiekwe would be “100 per cent committed” and “completely immerse himself” in life as a Saint.
Isiekwe certainly appears to be a dedicated and determined character. This last-ditch cover tackle against Bath in 2018 denied Kahn Fotuali’i and showcased his speed:
At Thomond Park last December, during a 10-3 defeat that yielded an ultimately precious bonus-point for Saracens, Isiekwe racked up 21 tackles in a flinty, disruptive performance.
The following weekend, a two-man tackle on Tommy O’Donnell helped Mako Vunipola snare a momentum-shifting turnover:
This try, in February’s 36-22 win over Sale Sharks, illustrates Isiekwe’s opportunism. The imposing Itoje is an expert at spoiling exit plays with similar charge-downs and muscular counter-rucking:
Saints obviously value mobility in their back-five forwards. Alex Coles, Alex Moon, Courtney Lawes, David Ribbans, Jamie Gibson, Teimana Harrison, Lewis Ludlam and Tom Wood are all fairly rangy, industrious players capable of jumping in the lineout as well as contributing around the field.
As Boyd has outlined, Isiekwe will join Lawes in flitting between the second and back rows of the scrum. Saints’ expansive gameplan will give Isiekwe the opportunity to use his distribution, too.
This swift take-and-give on his Test debut for England against Argentina in June 2017 set up Denny Solomona’s match-winning try:
Isiekwe knows Saints attack coach Sam Vesty from that tour and will relish throwing tip-on and pull-back passes. Northampton enjoy imparting width and playing to space.
In the summer of 2018, Jones picked Isiekwe to start the first Test against South Africa at lock. Over the preceding months, he had shone in the back row as Saracens sealed the Premiership title.
Although England rattled into a 24-0 lead, the Springboks fought back. Jones sensed that Isiekwe was exhausted in the thin Johannesburg air and whisked on Brad Shields after just 35 minutes.
Isiekwe’s third cap will be remembered as a chastening afternoon, but he is too good not to contend for international honours in the future.
Despite his tender years, he brings the experience of three major finals to Saints – two Premiership ones as well as last year’s Champions Cup triumph over Leinster. He can spur Saints towards silverware. That will win over supporters.
A discussion with his former England Under-18 coach, Russell Earnshaw, on the Magic Academy Podcast is a very good place to learn about Earl.
At the top level, players that are able to maximise their strengths are extremely handy. The 22 year-old articulates how he is learning to do this.
“I’m trying to look for mis-matches,” Earl tells Earnshaw. “That’s my thing. Whether it’s [against] a back that’s not as defensively-assured as a forward or a forward who is not as fast.
“It’s footwork. It’s basically… not being another back, but offering something that is between a back and a forward that allows me to be a bit more of an attacking option.”
You can see how Jones sees him as a viable option for a bench that comprises a six-two split of forwards and backs.
At another point in the interview, Earl jokes that weighing 102 kilograms, or around 16 stone, means there is not a lot to be gained from carrying into defenders.
This run, against Northampton at the start of this season, sees Earl isolate and beat Saints tighthead prop Paul Hill before setting up Matt Gallagher:
This is precisely the sort of mis-match he aims to exploit. Within the attacking framework that Bristol Bears use, Pat Lam will ensure Earl is given plenty of touches in wide channels.
Think of how Chris Vui, Nathan Hughes and Steven Luatua dovetail with Bristol’s outside backs:
Earl also carves challenging lines close to breakdowns…
…and, as McCall has often said, is capable of magical moments that conjure tries from nothing.
Here, against Cardiff Blues last season, he rushes up and snares an interception one phase after a heavy tackle from Isiekwe:
Instant impact!⚡️— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) December 9, 2018
41' Ben Earl comes on...
46' Ben Earl scores his second try of the afternoon 👏 pic.twitter.com/15F3PmcBCg
Just over a year later, directly from a Northampton lineout, he scores another try:
And yet, both his club coach and Jones have been most impressed with his improved endurance and steel around the tackle-area.
Earl, who captained England Under-20 and has been earmarked by Saracens as a player with the potential to be an influential leader, counts January’s Champions Cup win over Racing 92 as the most satisfying victory of his career to date.
Hours after their Premiership relegation was confirmed, McCall’s men defied Skelton’s red card just before half-time to succeed by a 27-24 scoreline and book a Champions Cup quarter-final.
Earl’s stunning, overhead offload set up Itoje’s try…
…but he also made ground from the back-field…
…and deputised tidily for Billy Vunipola, who broke his arm early on, at the base of the scrum:
The presence of Hughes and Mitch Eadie probably means that Lam will pick Earl as a flanker, but do not be surprised to see Bristol use his acceleration in innovative ways.
Earl is fiercely ambitious but has needed to be patient with his international aspirations. He first trained with the senior squad in 2018 prior to the tour of South Africa. Since then, peer Tom Curry has shone for England.
The highlight of his three short cameos over the recent Six Nations was probably this explosive carry at Murrayfield:
As Bristol know, Earl can be tough to shackle in tight exchanges:
Later in his discussion with Earnshaw, Earl admits to feeling a pang of “guilt” over not staying at Saracens for their Championship campaign. He also mentions that, having been with Saracens since the age of 14, he has become somewhat “brain-washed” to how the club operates.
Just as the best coaches – Boyd and Lam among them – have worked in different countries and different competitions, Saracens’ loanees can only benefit from a spell in another environment.
McCall is shrewd enough to know how a post-match soundbite can generate headlines, so would not have compared Malins to “a young Beauden Barrett” without a good deal of thought.
Tellingly, the quote arrived after Malins had plundered two tries in a 47-13 thrashing of Bristol – his new team.
“He is an interesting player,” McCall said. “He started life as a fly-half and came through school and England grade-ages there.
“But he reminds me a little bit of a young Beauden Barrett, who wants to play fly-half but played 15 in the early years for Hurricanes and the All Blacks.
“Max has got an acceleration that not too many have and the ability to make things happen really fast. He can play 10 and 15 at a high level.
“That relationship that he has with Owen Farrell on the field is really encouraging too. He makes good decisions in the back field and is a runner rather than a kicker.”
A transition from fly-half to full-back mirrors the switch made by senior colleague Alex Goode. Indeed, both Malins’ gait and his poise on the ball are evocative of Goode.
The first try of his brace against Bristol saw him slip past four defenders after feigning to clip a cross-field kick:
Earl’s finish in the same match illustrated Malins’ relationship with Farrell as a second-receiver.
Before the England captain throws a flat pass, his full-back is nestled in a second waves, ready to threaten the wide channels if Farrell throws a pull-back:
Malins has had a number of decorated mentors at Saracens but, like Isiekwe and Earl, he is a very rare talent.
Last April, he terrorised Exeter Chiefs at fly-half, orchestrating a 38-7 win at Allianz Park with a performance full of classy touches on the gain-line:
Two weeks previously, another blockbuster display from full-back had helped down a spirited Newcastle Falcons:
Frustrating foot injuries stalled his progress earlier this season, perhaps even denying him a place in England’s training squad for the Six Nations.
Malins was still able to underline his worth in more difficult games, with moments of quality during the 15-6 win over Munster and a 14-7 loss to Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park.
Now 23, he will be itching to string together appearances. With Bristol, those are probably more likely to come as Callum Sheedy’s deputy fly-half unless Charles Piutau is shifted to the wing from full-back.
Lam will want to field Semi Radradra and Luke Morahan as often as possible while keeping Piers O’Conor and Alapati Leiua happy. Then again, Bristol should be fighting on two fronts in the Premiership and the Champions Cup.
In either of his preferred positions, Malins will be a snug fit for how Bristol want to operate.
As part of the Bears’ sweeping phase-play, he will be able to pick out runners with his crisp passing. Alternatively, in a second wave of attack, he should have space to change direction and pick off defenders with jinking footwork.
A quietly determined character, Malins will be out to make up for lost time and will receive plenty of touches.
The next 15 months are shrouded in uncertainty, but any England matches that run concurrently with the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa would appear to be plausible targets for Earl, Isiekwe and Malin. A trip to Canada and USA is reportedly pencilled in.
From there, and with the help of Bristol and Northampton, all three can push towards the 2023 World Cup.