Two combinations stood out for England when Eddie Jones named about the strongest available team for the third of his side’s four World Cup warm-up matches, against Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday.
Jones has gone back to the future with a playmaking hinge of George Ford and Owen Farrell, while the possible future of the back row lies in the new pairing of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, both No 7s by preference, as blindside and openside flankers.
The Curry-Underhill combo was picked originally to face Wales a fortnight ago, but both were injured. Jones said his initial choice was in response to referees allowing a longer fight for the ball after a tackle has been made. “The ability to poach has increased,” Jones said. The pair’s pace and dynamism also addresses the problem of being beaten at the breakdown.
Jones used the ploy with Australia’s George Smith and Phil Waugh at the 2003 World Cup, and three of England’s front-line flankers at the same tournament – Richard Hill, Neil Back and Lewis Moody – were excellent No 7s. The best-known exponents more recently have been another pair of Australians, David Pocock and Michael Hooper.
‘Kamikaze’ Underhill and Curry pairing
Jones described Curry and Underhill as the “kamikaze kids” – a questionable reference, some might say, to Japanese suicide pilots, whose place in the culture of next month’s World Cup host nation has been variously frowned upon or appropriated for particular political purposes since the Second World War. “They hit everything that moves,” Jones said by way of explanation. “Off the pitch they’re nice public schoolboys. We’re asking if this [refereeing] is a strategic move by World Rugby for the World Cup and the answer [from the governing body] is ‘we don’t know’. What we want to be able to do is pick teams who can cope with this, if it’s going to be two people over the ball every breakdown.”
Curry, who is used to this at Sale Sharks – playing with his twin brother Ben, or Jono Ross – called the selection “really exciting”, and added: “In carries, he [Underhill] is a bit more direct and physical; I’m a bit more feet, hands, tip – trying to spot the gap. And then he’s a big chop tackler, defensively he’s good at that.”
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Underhill did not debunk the Jones theory that the pair lay waste to colleagues in training, saying: “He [Curry] is a nutter, but a healthy disregard for your own wellbeing is pretty essential if you are playing rugby, so I will take it as a compliment. Wales are big into it too [with Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric]. Ireland have done it with Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier. You are getting to a point where you are not really a six or seven. You are expected to be a line-out option, good on attack and defence and do everything.”
Ireland are mostly at strength, apart from Jean Kleyn coming in for his second appearance at lock, and the twice-capped fly-half Ross Byrne in the absence of the injured Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery. Jones said he is expecting a passing game from Ford and Farrell as fly-half and inside centre – a pairing used regularly in his first couple of seasons, but split up in the last year when Henry Slade, Ben Te’o and Manu Tuilagi offered alternatives in the centres.
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Slade would probably have played tomorrow but for a knee injury – he and the Bath wing Ruaridh McConnochie should be available to face Italy in two weeks’ time, but his Exeter club-mate Jack Nowell must prove he will be fit for the World Cup opener on 22 September.
As for Te’o, in whom Jones invested substantial faith and RFU wages but who is now off to Toulon in France, the coach said: “We wish him all the best and we just get on with it.”
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