The England No 8 has played the most minutes of Steve Borthwick's squad in France

For what feels like the first time in this World Cup, England back-rower Ben Earl was caught off guard. Not on the field, where the Saracens man has arguably been his country’s best player while racking up the most minutes across Steve Borthwick’s squad, but by a simple question.

Earl was asked how he intends to bridge the 18kg gap between himself and opposing No 8 Duane Vermeulen. “That’s a good question. Oh, I wasn’t ready for that,” he answered, slightly taken aback.

Read more: England v South Africa predictions: Who will prevail in repeat of 2019 final?

“Look, from everyone who’s played against him – and I haven’t had the privilege – says he’s one of the smartest players, as well as one of the biggest. I’ve got to bring the best of myself. I’ve got to play to my strengths.

“In the league and international rugby we play against some big teams and big players all the time, so it’s not something I am not used to, but like you said, it’s a World Cup semi-final, a new level. Sink or swim at this moment isn’t it? Let’s hope I swim.”

Ben Earl South Africa preview

Earl’s lung-busting performances have seen him nail down the No 8 spot ahead of club-mate Billy Vunipola after shifting to his more usual No 7 jersey while Tom Curry was suspended in the pool stage. Defence coach Kevin Sinfield even suggested Earl’s name would be in the mix if you were drawing up a current World XV. High praise indeed.

It has been a rapid journey from England outcast during the Six Nations to one of the first names on the team sheet during this World Cup and the 25-year-old, who is undoubtedly one of the squad’s best speakers, admits it has flown by.

“In terms of my journey, I’ve not really had a chance to look back on it,” said Earl. “It’s all happened quite quickly. It’s not something I’ve taken for granted. I’ve loved it. Yeah, and now it seems like a distant time away where you weren’t getting recognition, so I am just trying to appreciate wearing the Rose every day.

“In terms of what Kev said, for it to come from someone like him is massive. He is someone I honestly have so much respect for, on and off the pitch. One of the best guys I’ve met, one of the best rugby minds I’ve met. So, that’s always nice to hear.
“I think the message from the coach is always heard slightly clearer if you think the coach can probably do it better than you can. So, in terms of running, and fighting through the pain thresholds, he’s shown he can do that as a player and as a human being.
“His message has been pretty consistent over the campaign and our defence seems to be getting better. Defence at this point of the campaign is as much mental as it is technical. We are a team that loves defending.”

Earl’s raw speed was on show late in the game against Fiji, as a searing break downfield helped England close out the quarter-final in Marseille. He appears to be at the peak of his powers. Earl stopped short of proclaiming that he’s in the form of his life, but the performances speak for themselves. The Ben Earl South Africa match-up holds plenty of intrigue.

He added: “It’s certainly the most enjoyable time of my career. Really grateful for everything that’s happened for me so far this campaign. I am not taking it for granted.”

South Africa have been a sliding doors side for England in recent years. They crushed their World Cup dreams in the 2019 final in ruthless fashion before effectively ending Eddie Jones’s spell in charge by winning at Twickenham last November, leaving England to trudge off to a chorus of boos.

They have the chance to end Steve Borthwick’s first World Cup run or alternatively they could become the biggest success story of the former Leicester boss’s short tenure in charge.

“We’re absolutely buzzing. It’s been an exciting week,” Earl said. “Belief is good, we are buoyed where our game is at. We’re hoping it’s going to be a fantastic game where both sides are going to bring their best and see who comes out on top.

“We can’t wait to come up against what is probably one of the best packs in the world. The occasion is one that is going to bring the best out of everyone.”

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