- Feature taken from Saturday's matchday programme
- Buy the England v Italy matchday programme - here
Tom Curry is one of a new breed of forwards giving England strength in depth in crucial positions ahead of the World Cup. Chris Hewett assesses the impact of an energetic back-row force with time on his side.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes. So said a wise man many moons ago and the exciting emergence of a bright young thing in the England back row speaks to the truth his words.
When Tom Curry first sat down to talk rugby with the national head coach Eddie Jones, he identified three Wallabies – Michael Hooper, David Pocock and the ageless George Smith – as his principal role models. Good move, Tom. For one thing, the boss happens to be an Australian. For another, it was Jones who fast-tracked the teenaged Smith into big-time union.
Curry was still 18 when, in 2017, he made his Test debut in a summer tour meeting with Argentina in San Juan, having already hoovered up the man-of-the-match gong in a non-cap game against the Barbarians at Twickenham.
He was the youngest forward to represent England in more than a century, and the youngest flanker to achieve the feat in the annals of the red rose game. Since when, he has mixed it successfully with the Springboks in the badlands of South Africa, suffered a first serious taste of injury misery after busting a bone in his wrist while on club duty with Sale, given his poor mother the heebie-jeebies by playing a brave and bloodied role in the recent victory over France and turned in a performance against Wales that earned him both a first international try and rave reviews from the critics. Talk about things happening fast.
Not so very long ago, those self-same critics were looking across the Severn Bridge and spotting at least five red-shirted No.7 specialists, and possibly six, who might easily have claimed a starting place in an England team.
Times have changed. Curry’s rapid development as a Test-class breakaway, underpinned by the progress of another contender for the role in Sam Underhill of Bath, means that now, in World Cup year, the coaching staff have some proper options on the table. The battle between these two will be one of the fascinations of the coming months, reminiscent of the compelling scrum half contest between Matt Dawson and Kyran Bracken that preceded the triumphant campaign of 2003.
It is too easy to see the hard-tackling, limpet-like Underhill purely as a master of the defensive disciplines, just as it is lazy to pigeonhole Curry as a looser, wider-roaming creative spirit. Underhill can play a bit with ball in hand: witness the spectacular “non-try” against the All Blacks last autumn, during which he gave an opponent as quick-thinking and fleet-footed as Beauden Barrett the runaround of a lifetime. Curry, meanwhile, is no stranger to the dark arts. When it comes to tackling and turnovers, he routinely deals in the big numbers and has the scars to prove it.
If there are fine judgements to be made in relation to both players, who is to say that the inventive Jones will not pair them at some point? After all, this is the coach who ran both Smith and Phil Waugh, two out-and-out Wallaby No.7s, against England in the World Cup final on that night of nights 16 years ago, and it is worth reminding ourselves at this point that the Australians ran Hooper and Pocock in tandem at the last global jamboree and continue to do so. Just a thought…
Over the course of the World Cup era, England coaches have tended to make early selection calls at No.7. Geoff Cooke decided that Peter Winterbottom was the main man well ahead of the 1991 tournament; when Jack Rowell opted for size and substance by picking three No.8s in his initial back row in 1994, it was always going to fall to the quickest of them, Ben Clarke, to perform the open-side duties at the big tournament a year later.
For Clive Woodward, the small but insanely competitive Neil Back quickly emerged as the obvious answer; for Brian Ashton, bold plans to construct a thinking man’s back row around the ultra-bright Tom Rees were derailed by injury. As for Martin Johnson and Stuart Lancaster, they considered Lewis Moody and Chris Robshaw to be so central to England’s fortunes, both were handed the captaincy as well as the No.7 shirt.
Jones is in a slightly different place, but he at least knows that, in Curry, he has a player capable of combining youthful exuberance, full-on physicality, a cutting-edge set of footballing skills and a poacher’s instinct. All the best open-side specialists in the modern era have been chancers – players who knew a short cut when they saw it and had the ability to adapt their games to the demands of the moment, dictated as much by the approach of the referee as by opposition tactics. Curry’s try in Cardiff was the product of clever positioning and ruthless opportunism, the twin planks of game understanding. Richie McCaw himself would have been impressed.“I thought I was just sweating."
Like Winterbottom before him, not to mention the likes of the Grand Slam-winning Lions Test forward Tony Neary, the youngster brings a touch of northern grit to the open-side position. Some of his fellow north countrymen in the squad – a certain Owen Farrell, for instance – are said to give him grief for being born in London, and in his self-mocking moments, Curry confesses that his preference for mild Indian food over the spicier versions is a sign of the “southerner in me”. But he is learning his rugby in a tough school at Sale and is the very last person to reveal a soft centre when the hard questions are asked.
“I thought I was just sweating,” he said when asked about the blood cascading down his face during the France game. “Then it came up on the big screen and the crowd went ‘ooh’ and everyone said I had to go off for a head injury. But it really didn’t hurt. I just hadn’t realised.”
Of all people, the French would have recognised this “I’m-having-fun-so-let’s-get-on-with-it” sentiment. Throughout his gilded international career, the Tricolore folk hero Jean-Pierre Rives was the bloodiest of battlers. And let’s face it: he wasn’t a bad open-side flanker, either.
Feature taken from Saturday's matchday programme. Buy the England v Italy matchday programme - here