When Eddie Jones refused to name a natural No 8 in his initial Six Nations squad, and subsequently throw 2019 player of the year contender Tom Curry into uncharted waters in a reshaped beck-row, questions were asked whether the England head coach had finally lost it.
Retired greats of the game stressed that the Sale Sharks forward was nowhere close to a No 8, while the form of Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds in tearing up the Premiership left many baffled at his selection policy. There were other confusing calls along the way – having two aging scrum-halves, a centre on the wing and flipping Elliot Daly from full-back to wing then back again were among them – but on the whole it was the back-row that triggered the bulk of the criticism.
So it must be said that Jones deserves credit for reshaping the way England play the breakdown with their loose-forwards. Curry and Sam Underhill gave them a new dimension in Japan last year, and together with Courtney Lawes this championship they have been able to physically intimidate the opposition at the breakdown in their last two outings, getting to rucks faster, stealing the ball more, dominating tackle after tackle.
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It will be interesting to see then how England cope without Underhill in attendance, with the openside flanker ruled out of Saturday’s clash with Wales with a head injury. In his absence Mark Wilson returns from injury after just one match for Sale Sharks, having undergone surgery post-World Cup on a troublesome knee that has sidelined him until now. With Wilson back in the fold, Jones could easily have moved Curry back to his natural role on the flanker given Wilson proved England’s player of the series in the No 8 shirt during the 2018 autumn internationals, but the though never crossed Jones’ mind.
That’s because for the Australian, the defined roles of what makes a six, seven and eight no longer exists today like it did so rigidly in the days of Hill, Back and Dallaglio, the trio that remain the bar when it comes to English back-row units.
“The roles of six, seven, eight … I know you guys like to think they’re traditional roles,” elaborated Jones, “but (Taulupe) Faletau plays in the 15-metre channel. That’s not how traditional No 8s play but the game’s changed a lot.
“The roles of six, seven and eight are massively interchangeable. The only time they’re not is when you’ve got a scrum and the ball goes in the scrum. We’re happy with the progress of Curry.”
There is a strong argument made by Austin Healey in The Telegraph that a back-row of Lawes-Wilson-Curry brings far more balance than Lawes-Underhill-Curry. Having found his feet in his new role, Curry has returned to the levels witnessed at the World Cup that set him out from the every other back-row forward bar South Africa’s Pieter Steph du Toit, the man who beat him to World Rugby Player of the Year, but there’s an understanding from the Sale Sharks man that shows how important balance is to bringing out the best of the back row.
“We’ll just play our normal game,” Curry said of his and Wilson’s role. “You can’t put a percentage on who is going to be doing what, we’ll have to find out, but we’ll probably just play our game and I think that’s when we’re both at our best.
“We can impact the team even more if we’re both just playing our natural game. There’s no ‘I’m going to do seven-and-a-half and I’ll do eight’, there’s nothing like that.
“There’s a danger sometimes people start overthinking what the role of a No 8 is. Apart from picking up the ball at the base of the scrum and maybe being in the backfield a bit more, I don’t think a lot has changed. Naturally you might find yourself in different positions but I’m not going to adapt my behaviour just because I’ve got a different number on my back.”
Curry and Wilson were together in the back row when England led Wales 13-0 in Cardiff a year ago, only for Wales to turn the table on them and fightback to a gruelling 21-13 victory, although Curry did enjoy his best performance on his young career on that night. Wales have long boasted a world-leading back-row, with the Sam Warburton-Justin Tipuric-Taulupe Faletau combination morphing into Wayne Pivac’s surprising selection of Ross Moriarty, Tipuric and the fit-again Josh Navidi.
But it was those three players who did a number on England in the second half last year, and the breakdown battle is almost certain to be where the game on Saturday is won and lost once again.
“I think you start with the obvious point of the breakdown,” noted Curry. “Navidi is good over the ball, and obviously Tipuric is as well so the was breakdown a huge threat going into it.
“It’s a huge focus but it always is for us as a team, getting momentum at the breakdown is huge for us anyway, so in that regard our standards will still be high.
“We addressed that in terms of that second half (last year), and what happened in comparison to our first half, but that’s all been put aside. We’ve learned from that and moved on, we’ve had so many games as a team since then and I think we’ve improved as a team since then, so we don’t need to find any motivation from a year ago. We’re fully focussed on Saturday and what we can bring. All that stuff has been dealt with and I think we’ve really put ourselves in a better spot since then.”