The England number 7 jersey has resembled a game of musical chairs under the stewardship of Eddie Jones. It has been the most unsettled position as Jones tinkers with solutions to find the right balance of his pack.
Ever since he took the role as England’s head coach he has been vocal about not requiring a specialist openside flanker, stating he sees the requirements of the role differently from a traditional hunter. First and foremost, securing possession off first phase, and quickly, is of utmost importance. This explains why he has opted for big-bodied blindsides who might be superior at cleaning out instead of a natural fetcher type.
The South Africa series saw a number of experiments by Jones, including trialing a specialist 7 for the entire series – young 20-year-old Tom Curry. His selection in all three tests is a clear indication Jones wants to move away from a back-row based on size and power alone, to one with more mobility and the potential to create multiple turnovers.
Against South Africa in the third test, Curry was raw but enthusiastic. His execution of England’s attacking patterns was not quite there but his high work rate around the park in defence and during transition plays gave England a lift in the treacherous conditions.
When conditions are wet and slippery, kicking plays an overbearing part of the game. The transition plays between attack and defence are crucial for an openside, both in recovery work to secure possession and kick chase pressure. Curry did well to secure rucks and offered some counter-attacking running lanes off the ball for England’s return game.
Here as Mike Brown (11) returns the ball, Curry is retreating with his opposite number Pieter-Steph du Toit. Brown is not in an ideal position for Curry to help, he is on the inside shoulder giving du Toit the best leverage. However, Owen Farrell (12) on the outside presents an opportunity to exploit the gap between du Toit and Jesse Kriel. Curry can keep it open with some legal shielding.
As the play develops Mike Brown doesn’t pass, du Toit slips underneath Curry and puts England under pressure by swallowing Brown. Curry’s positioning was accurate anticipating wider movement but Brown’s decision to hold was left wanting when space presented for Farrell.
Later in the half Nathan Hughes (8) prepares to return a kick with Curry again jostling with Du Toit for position.
Du Toit slips underneath Curry again, but in the slippery conditions he is pushed off his line just enough for Hughes to make a half-break. Hughes offloads to Brown and Curry looms in support but the ball is dislodged from Brown’s hands.
In defence, he got through 14 tackles filling the C gap a lot in phase play and playing a halfback role at the lineout as Cipriani’s inside protection, solidifying the 9-10 channel. He made two outstanding dominant one-on-one tackles on Andre Esterhuizen coming off set-piece.
He managed to win a turnover with pure upper body strength, holding up Siya Kolisi enough for a collapsed maul on a play that South Africa sent down the 9-10 channel. He won another in traditional fetcher fashion in the first half, striking an isolated opponent and forcing a holding on penalty.
His impact on the game in defence was outstanding but it was other areas that will be a concern for Jones. He made a couple of mental errors when used as a running option outside 10 and was technically amiss at times as a primary cleanout option.
Above is a common attack formation used outside Cipriani that Curry frequently occupies. On one occasion he stuck an outstretched hand for a pass that was intended for his outside man leading to a knock-on and on another he botched a running line, causing an obstruction which was fortunately not called by the referee.
Curry’s technique at the cleanout area was a worry at times, often losing his footing too early and heading to ground with his teammate, sealing off the ball and taking himself out of play giving the opposition a crack at the ball.
Below Curry is on the ground, on top of his teammate with the Springbok forwards given a prime opportunity to contest the ball. This sometimes requires others to commit to the ruck that weren’t initially planning to do so. In the second example, Owen Farrell bails out Curry by coming in to clean out Kolisi.
His cleanout work in the match was inconsistent and sometimes completely illegal, taking side entries on multiple occasions and failing to release the tackled opponent, which he was lucky to be not penalised for. This is a fine line to toe and if he can get away with it consistently then kudos to him but could cost the side if policed properly.
Below South Africa’s loose forwards complete a dominant tackle on Nathan Hughes, driving him backward. Curry, having overshot the mark, has to track back and enters from the side illegally to clean.
At just 20-years-old Curry is showing plenty of promise to retain his spot in the England squad. His work rate is phenomenal and a real asset to the team. His recovery work and off-the-ball line running is great – as he grows in size he will be more effective at holding his weight in those situations as well as becoming a bigger nuisance at the breakdown which is an obvious strength.
He will have to clean up a few technical areas but the risk is worth the upside for England, already proving he can win turnovers against a daunting Springbok pack. Defensively he is reliable and can bring pressure with his line speed and his high aerobic capacity gives the side extra mobility.
Tom Curry could just be Eddie Jones long-term answer at 7.
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