THE arrival of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill in the England squad has brought a quality of performance at No.7 which we have not seen in that position with any consistency for a long time.
When Eddie Jones took over the England job he started with Chris Robshaw and James Haskell as his flankers, who were both 6-and-a-halves, and happy to describe themselves in that way. It was a combination that worked, and Haskell was so influential in the clean-sweep in Australia at 7 that he was recognised as the player of the series.
However, Curry, 20, and Underhill, 22, are similar to the opensides from the era before that. They are still not Neil Back or Peter Winterbottom, because the game is now so physical and the gain-line battle so structured that they have to carry more than the old opensides were required to – and you wince when you see them take some of the contact.
When Curry was first selected people were asking who this kid from Sale was, and there were a lot of question marks about his physicality when he was brought into the England squad at 19. By that time Underhill had spent time at the Ospreys where he got headlines for playing well alongside Justin Tipuric, and pitting himself against players like Sam Warburton.
Both of them served only a mini-apprenticeship, because these days if you come into the senior squad at 19 – which many do – you are straight into competing with the big boys. At that stage as a young flanker you don’t yet have the “man strength”, but you learn to compensate by picking the right angles in contact and you develop a battle hardness very quickly.
Young flankers also have to build the muscle to cope with the physical demands, and if you take a snapshot of Curry (6ft 2in, 16st 12lb) and Underhill (6ft 1in, 16st 3lb) from where they started to where they are now they have transformed physically. They are muscle on muscle, which is what you need if you are going to take a pounding like they do over the ball.
They are now clearly England’s first two choices at openside, with Underhill the first to break through and grab people’s attention when he made that spectacular tackle to stop Wales centre Scott Williams scoring in the 2018 Six Nations.
Underhill’s unique selling point is that he is a bloody good tackler. However, the Bath 7 needs to be more than that, and particularly to be more of a support runner and link in attack. He showed with that disallowed try against New Zealand in the Autumn what he can do with the ball in his hands, and he must aim to make more of those runs.
Curry has also done some very good work this season, scoring that sniping try against Wales and making some good breaks. He has been effective at winning breakdown turn-overs, and also gives you a line-out option at the back, whereas Underhill is more of a tail-gunner.
Having done well in South Africa last summer, Curry took another big step forward as one of England’s best players in the Six Nations when Underhill was injured. While you cannot see Curry being left out of the moment, because he even played well in England’s Six Nations losses, Underhill’s all-round display against New Zealand was outstanding.
Both of them are jackaling, tackling nuisances, because that is their bread-and-butter, but they also bring mobility and link-play in attack. They have shown already what an addition they are to the England side, and whichever of them plays I don’t see England losing anything, because they contribute equally.
An area where England can improve is snuffing-out 38-phase attacks like the one where Cory Hill scored for Wales. When you see David Pocock play for Australia you expect him to win one of those breakdowns, or slow it down so that the momentum dies. That’s where Underhill and Curry have to get to – and at the rate they are going they will soon get there.
There has been a suggestion that they could play in the same back row together as a 6-7 combination, but that is probably not foremost in Eddie Jones’ plans. I lean towards having a big man at blindside like a Jerome Kaino, or in my day, John Hall – but I was spoilt. England have those options in Brad Shields, Mark Wilson, or the possibility of moving Maro Itoje or Nathan Hughes to blindside.
It’s a balance between how much weight and power you lose in areas like the driving maul and the defensive line, set against the benefits that two opensides bring in attack and in winning turn-overs in defence.
My view is that because England are not a wide team in the way that New Zealand are, but are at their best when they are direct, they require muscle to get over the gain-line. Powerful backs like Joe Cokanasiga, Manu Tuilagi and Ben Te’o can provide those targets for the pack, and with that directness you should get quick ball.
Do you need two 7s to keep that going? No. If England’s clear-out at the breakdown is effective it is not necessary. It will be a great rivalry because they are both very good, but I doubt they will play together very often at Test level.
The one area where the 15-man game is getting closer to Rugby League than we have ever been before is in the number of phases, and it means that all forwards – openside flankers included – have to be able to carry the ball into contact on a regular basis. The only way any forward is exempted from that is if their tackling numbers or metres made in open field are exceptional.
It’s my old-fashioned view as an outside-centre to want a flanker on your shoulder to play as a link man and exploit the space, but it happens rarely now because their duties are as much about being a carrier as being a jackaler or tackler.
Instead of trucking it up to the defensive line I would like to see 7s doing more running, supporting, and passing. What we have at the moment in Curry and Underhill is two 7s with great skill sets who can tackle, jackal, run, support, and cover – but the less they are asked to carry into contact the more impact they will have on a game.
You have to remember how young these two opensides are – Underhill will be 23 this summer, and Curry 21 – and that they are making an impression at international level from clubs that are not at the top of the league.
Underhill and Curry are really good now, but are nowhere near their peak.
JEREMY GUSCOTT / Photo: Getty Images