There were few positives to come out of England’s heaviest defeat on home soil against the Barbarians at the weekend, but one of them came in the defensive display of flanker Tom Curry who may just yet prove to be the answer to Eddie Jones’ desperate search for a natural openside flanker.
Since replacing Stuart Lancaster as England head coach, Jones has selected James Haskell, Teimana Harrison, Tom Wood, Jack Clifford, Sam Underhill, Chris Robshaw and Curry himself at openside flanker, having expressed a vocal desire to find a natural ball-winning No 7 capable of rivalling the likes of Michael Hooper, Sam Cane, Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric in the breakdown.
And while England may have leaked nine tries to the Barbarians with a defensive horror show, there was at least Curry’s performance to take pleasure in as he led England’s turnover stats.
At times the 19-year-old openside flanker allowed his eagerness to get the better of him, drawing the wrath of referee Mathieu Raynal who twice penalised him, but he was also the standout player in a white shirt and drew praise from head coach Jones after the match.
“Tom Curry hasn’t played Test rugby for a long time and I thought he came back and did some good things, but his timing was a little bit off at times,” Jones said. “He got his timing wrong at times but he contested hard and tried to be a link player. We always thought he would be a good player and he will be.”
With Underhill injured, Robshaw back in the No 6 shirt, Don Armand’s continued omission and Haskell out of the picture, Curry looks a certainty to start the first Test against South Africa at openside flanker providing he can maintain his fitness, and that fills the young Sale Sharks back-row with excitement.
“Any time, like today [Sunday], you have an opportunity to represent your country it is so exciting and a massive honour,” he said. “Today was a stepping stone. We have only had the guys in for two weeks, so once we all get together it will be a very exciting squad.
“I will do what is best for the team. Eddie is pretty clear about what he wants from a seven. I just try and fit into the seven role in the team structure. Today it worked out pretty well – I do what is best for the team, to make sure I have speed at the breakdown and link the play. And work as hard as possible. Seven has got to be the hardest working player on the pitch. I am just going round busting a gut.”
That defensive effort needs to be matched by his teammates if England are to stand a chance of snapping their four-game losing streak against the Springboks, so it was relieving to hear Curry bely his age to issue a rallying call to the rest of the squad – himself included – to up the effort when they run out at Ellis Park in two weeks’ time.
He added: “Our defensive effort was not good enough. Especially against the Barbarians – they play, as we saw, literally from their 22. When you have got that style of rugby, and when the defensive effort is not quite there you are going to struggle. The spaces open up and seven points to concede is a lot every time. We were just not quite there.”
If he can seize his opportunity this summer, Curry could well tie down one of the problem shirts that Jones has been trying to fill in his Rugby World Cup side, although if he is able to cross off the seven shirt come the end of the summer, he still has about nine other problem areas to resolve.
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