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Pressing his case

Sam Peters

Max Malins was 22 when his coach at Saracens compared him to a young Beauden Barrett. He could be 82 before people stop mentioning it.

Such was the chord Mark McCall’s comment struck, it’s hard to watch the lavishly talented young playmaker perform without comparing him to the All Black playmaker and wondering if his brilliant club form could translate to the international stage.

With a fleet of foot matched by only by the apparent relish by which he extracts himself from tight spaces, Malins can play 10 as easily as full back and possesses an all-round sportsman’s instinct for space which benefits team-mates every bit as much as it benefits him.

This writer has kept an unusually close eye on Malins since a close friend first texted to say his young cousin had just signed for Saracens Academy, aged 17. At the time I wrongly assumed he’d be one of many also-rans but two years later, having watched his debut first team appearance for Saracens, I didn’t hesitate in messaging my friend to predict one day – injury permitting – he’d have an England international in the family.

Max Malins
Malins won his first cap against Georgia in the Autumn Nations Cup (Getty Images)

A broken foot last January hampered progress just as international honours beckoned but now, aged 24 and enjoying on-field freedom on loan at Bristol, Malins is set to come of age. ready After three bit-part roles from the bench, an England starting jersey beckons. 

“Absolutely I feel ready,” Malins told me from England’s Lensbury training base on Tuesday. “I don’t think too much would change in terms of how I’d approach it if I’m totally honest. I’d do my work at the start of the week to free me up for the weekend. I wouldn’t try and build it up too much in my mind and put too much pressure on myself. I think I’d be fairly chilled about things.”

Speak to those who know him and the same words keep cropping up; Calm, self-contained, unflappable, chilled, team player. Malins is no show pony, despite having so much to show.

“I remember when he was little playing hockey he could play absolutely brilliantly but if the team lost, he’d be inconsolable,” his mother Amanda said.

“We’d say to him “you played so well” but all he’d say was “it doesn’t matter, we lost”.”

He’s a very calm individual and that comes through in his play as well. Max just smiles and takes it all in.

Bristol head coach, Pat Lam

The old adage of doing his talking on the pitch fits nicely with English rugby’s craving for conformity, even if his insistence on playing what’s in front of him could send a few duffers into a spin. With enough intelligence to miss out on being a triple A student at A-Level by a solitary mark, something which will “annoy him for ever”, he is smart and gains the trust of coaches and team-mates alike, fast.

“He’s a very calm individual and that comes through in his play as well,” said Bristol DOR Pat Lam, who signed Malins on loan without hesitation, along with Ben Earls, when Saracens were relegated last season. 

Pat Lam
Lam, head coach of Bristol Bears, has been instrumental in Malins’ development (Getty Images)

“Things don’t faze him. You could say Ben is the “loud” one of the two whereas Max just smiles and takes it all in. He has a really good understanding of the game and has mixed in really well here. He’s not ‘out there’ and doesn’t need to be. He just goes about his business and is a good person.” 

Malins is set to replace Elliot Daly at full back to face France with the latter’s defensive frailties exposed in recent outings against Italy and Wales. Malins, although not a huge “hitter” is defensively astute and able to guide attackers into the channels he wants them with a combination of pace and intelligent defensive running lines.

“He is not overly aggressive but the physical side of the game around contact and defence is no problem at all,” Lam added. “He’s smart in those situations and that’s key.”

A gifted schoolboy all-round sportsman who turned his back on golf aged seven after being told he could play off scratch by his teenage years because the sport was too individualistic, Malins continued playing representative hockey long after Saracens signed him. He was also a talented cricketer, footballer and tennis player.

I’d say that understanding of spatial awareness has helped Max a lot with timing and how to manipulate space. People compare Beauden Barrett and Max for their kicking games but it’s about their understanding of the game more than anything.

Pat Lam

“When you play other sports a lot of the most talented guys get a real good awareness of space and reading of the game through playing sports like hockey and football,” Lam said.

“I’d say that understanding of spatial awareness has helped Max a lot with timing and how to manipulate space. People compare Beauden Barrett and Max for their kicking games but it’s about their understanding of the game more than anything. He reads the game and is one step ahead. If he’s trapped he’ll normally find a way out.”

Malins prides himself on his ability to read what’s in front of him and he has the pace and skill to execute whatever attacking option he takes. However, he needs order and schedule in the early part of the week to be ready for matchday.

“He’s slightly OCD,” Amanda explains. “When he used to come home from school he’d put his bag down by the door, put the washing in the washing basket, hangs up his coat, shoes on the shelf and take his bag to his room. Always in the same order. You definitely won’t catch him running around with his socks rolled down.

“He’s got two older brothers and he just quietly watch them to work out what he needed to do. He needs order but he is also a very calming influence on everyone around him. He never screams and shouts and wouldn’t respond if someone screamed at him. He’d just switch off.”

Max is one of the most naturally gifted and talented players I’ve ever come across

Harry Randall, Bristol scrum-half

With the ever-present risk of injury now the clearest threat to a substantive international career, Malins unflappable temperament is evident, especially in the tightest of spots.

“Max is one of the most naturally gifted and talented players I’ve ever come across,” said his current Bristol and former England under 20 teammate Harry Randall.

“He could probably not kick a ball off a tee for a year and then go and slot five out of five. He’s that kind of guy. Things seem to come easily to him but he works incredibly hard on his game as well.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him flustered or panicked in any situation. He’s very resilient and he doesn’t let things get to him. Even if he does he very rarely shows it and that’s credit to him. He’s a great asset to have in those situations. He’s shown that in the tightest situations for Bristol this season.”

Max Malins takes a kick for England Under-20s
Malins and Randall played together for England Under-20, and are now team-mates at Bristol Bears (Getty Images)

While others may feel the need to inflate their aggression levels as kick off draws near, Malins prefers chilling out to the likes of Jack Cullen, Luke Comb and Ed Sheeran as part of what he insists is a “wide palate” of musical tastes which also features American hip-hop artist Akon.

“His build up is very calm, chilled,” mum Amanda adds. “He’s a very non-aggressive person which is quite strange for a rugby player. He doesn’t have an aggressive bone in his body. He doesn’t need aggression to get pumped up. He just calmly goes about his job. He’s completely unflappable.”

In a sport where, in England especially, overly prescriptive coaching can stifle natural instinct, Malins prefers to rely on intuition and his own attacking assets on matchdays rather than scripts.

I do enjoy that challenge of escaping being trapped. Probably when you’re running back into your own five metre line and you’ve got three people chasing you you’re thinking “what am I going to do here?” But I see it as a good challenge

“My pace helps me out of difficult situations sometimes and probably what I see also helps me out as well,” Malins says. “No one wants to be trapped anywhere so it’s all about trying to find a way out of that. The better the picture you see the better chance you have of getting out.

“I do enjoy that challenge of escaping being trapped. Probably when you’re running back into your own five metre line and you’ve got three people chasing you you’re thinking “what am I going to do here?” But I see it as a good challenge. A little battle within the big game. Staying calm is important.”

Only time will tell if Malins can deliver consistently on the abundant promise and one day shed the Beaudan Barrett tag.

“He’s missed a fair bit of rugby through injury and his biggest challenge is getting his body right and understanding what he needs to do to go time after time,” Lam said. “If he doesn’t, we’ll just be talking about potential.

“If he gets his body right, bulletproof. If he does that, he could an England great. This isn’t about Max winning one cap, it’s about him winning 100 caps.”

More stories from Sam Peters

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