As the unflappable Max Malins has been demonstrating all year, rugby can still be a game for languid piano players as well as piano shifters. Of course it matters who hits hardest and contests the most breakdowns but the most prized currency at elite level is time. Players capable of making a frenziedly physical sport look deceptively easy are growing rarer by the year.
There was an era – think David Gower in cricket, Matt Le Tissier in football or Stefan Edberg on a tennis court – when such a lightness of touch could be found across the majority of sports. English rugby, though, has often been suspicious of the genre: the richly gifted Alex Goode, Danny Cipriani and James Simpson-Daniel were entrusted with a mere 25 England starts between them.
Which made Malins’ glorious contribution off the bench against South Africa last Saturday, not least his game-changing tackle on Kwagga Smith, all the more timely. The 20-year-old Freddie Steward may have taken a firm grip on the full-back jersey but the versatile Malins, when fit, is also fast emerging as too good to leave out. “Max is a very talented rugby player,” said Eddie Jones. “He has got great pace, he has got a good feel for the game and defensively he is improving all the time.”
As Jones is not given to gushing public testimonies that is particularly high praise. At Saracens, who host Sale Sharks on Sunday, his director of rugby, Mark McCall, once compared him to Beauden Barrett and it is not hard to see why. The balanced running, the broad palette of skills, the natural ball-player’s knack of being in the right place at the right time? Tick, tick, tick.
And should circumstances dictate that he features as a roving wing instead of at full-back or even fly-half where he began his career, so be it. When someone scores seven tries inside eight days for Saracens against Bath and Wasps last month, the number on his back matters little.
“I see myself more as a full-back but if playing on the wing means I can start games I’ll happily do it,” he says. “I’m probably not the traditional wing with out-and-out gas but I’ll try and do a job if it means I’m in the team. If you’re in an England shirt I don’t think you can be too disappointed where you are.”
What really sets Malins apart, though, is the A-word. No one in the country, with the possible exception of Marcus Smith, has a sharper sense of anticipation for what might be unfolding around him. Nor is it a coincidence that Malins specialises in try-scoring interceptions. Barely has a pass left an unwary opponent’s hand than – whoosh – he is gone. “It’s very much a feel thing: reading the situation and then reacting to it. I guess it’s a bit of instinct whether you go for it or not.”
Which is why, in his opinion, the illusion of having more time on the ball is just that. “People look like they have more time because of what they’ve already seen. That’s a big thing for me. Making sure I see the picture so I know what’s coming. And then having an idea in my head of what’s going to pan out once I’ve got the ball.”
If his blond hair, relaxed persona and uncommon vision imply an unhurried artist, there is also clearly a calculating mind at play. The son of a financial adviser and a horse-riding teacher, he is studying for an Open University degree in business management and, but for rugby, might well have ended up employed in the City. “Before I started rugby I thought I’d definitely go down the City route but the more I see my older brother stressing I think: ‘Do I really want to go into that?’”
His two older brothers are in banking and insurance respectively while his younger sister works for a company looking into the side effects of medicines. While his mother’s passion for horses was also a recurring childhood theme – “We were all forced to ride back in the day but I hung the stirrups up a while back” – it was rugby that fascinated him from his earliest days at Bishop’s Stortford RFC. “I was only six or seven when we won the 2003 World Cup. I played at 10 when I was younger so Jonny Wilkinson putting that drop goal over has always been a massive thing. From that moment you always dream. For it to come true is pretty surreal.”
With two years to go until the 2023 World Cup, England’s increasing desire to back flexible-minded, adaptable players is even better news. Malins, personally, has long thought the southern hemisphere does not have a monopoly on attacking players keen to express themselves with ball in hand. “I think that’s the better part of my game … that instinctive nature, playing what’s in front of you. That’s certainly getting coached now, keeping your eyes up and not necessarily sticking to a system. The more I can do that then hopefully the more opportunities I can take.”
A productive loan year spent at Bristol Bears also helped, specifically watching and learning from the gifted former All Black Charles Piutau. “Charles just has an incredible step and vision for the game. His ability to beat people one on one is incredible. You can’t imitate that but it’s more about what he sees … how he manipulates defenders to get what he wants, whether it is shaping his body one way and then going the other. I don’t specifically sit down and watch people’s clips but I always keep an eye out for the good players.”
So what does faze Malins? Even his parents and siblings, it seems, seldom see him ruffled. “I think that’s a bugbear of my family. When they try and annoy me it doesn’t really work.” Come on, surely something or somebody must scare him? “OK, if you want to frighten me get a snake in there and I’ll be running 100 miles.”
When it comes back to rugby, though, Malins has an almost Zen-like mindset. “I just try and stay calm and not think too much about the occasion. If I do that’s what takes away my instinctive nature. I try and keep as free a mind as possible.”
Trust in the “Max factor” and rugby instantly appears a more beautiful game.