When Tom Curry first broke onto the international scene, he looked like the openside flanker England had long been looking for. A series of stunning performances in the No7 jersey suggested that between him and Sam Underhill, England were assured of an aspect of their game they had long been missing.
On Underhill’s return from injury, Eddie Jones decided to maximise the impact his two young flankers could make by asking Curry to work on his lineout jumping so he could move to the blindside. He did that with distinction, consistently being one of England’s most impressive performers at the World Cup in Japan.
When Billy Vunipola’s latest arm injury ruled him out of the Six Nations, many assumed Jones would look to one of the specialist No8s in the English Premiership or recall Nathan Hughes. But he did neither, instead calling upon Curry’s versatility yet again to adapt to another position.
Vunipola is an irreplaceable player and Jones made clear he was looking for an alternative way for England to play without him rather than for Curry to try to replicate his impact.
So how was Curry used in the No8 jersey in the Guinness Six Nations? In a myriad of different ways, it turns out…
A modern sweeper
It’s not unusual for teams to ask a powerful ball carrier to drop back as they engage in back-and-forth kicking, allowing them to get up a head of steam as they run towards a less well-organised defensive line. England have often used Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi in this way, for example.
Likewise, teams often ask their best tacklers to chase their own kicks, putting the opposition under pressure as they try to collect, or a jackaller to sweep the field and take on an isolated runner in a poor kick return.
But most teams have different players doing these things, making the most of their different skill sets. Curry is doing all of them for England and he has been for a while now.
He might not be as powerful as Vunipola but he is quick, an excellent tackler and one of England’s best turnover merchants. That makes him extremely useful in a number of different kicking scenarios.
Taking a restart against Wales last Saturday, he used his footwork to make a few crucial metres and then secured the ball for England to get it away.
Here, against Ireland in round three, he chased down the kick-off to try and turn the ball over immediately, although in this instance Conor Murray managed to exit successfully.
He did the same repeatedly against Wales, chasing restarts and assessing breakdown opportunities.
A different type of ball carrier
The best ball carriers aren’t just powerful, they use their feet cleverly whether that is to twist through the grasp of defenders or to explode into contact and gain a precious extra metre or so.
Here, Curry showed he was more than capable of the former, very nearly breaking through Ireland’s defence.
Against Wales, he showed his smarts as a carrier again. England’s scrum was dominant so they had a penalty coming, but Curry controlled the ball (showing how quickly he has already improved in that area since the game against France) and broke down the blindside, sucking in the Welsh defence further to give England a chance of scoring a try during their advantage.
A link man and auxiliary half-back
Perhaps what was most interesting about Curry is how he was being used as a distributing option.
In the past, Jones raised eyebrows by suggesting that Ben Curry, Tom’s twin, might act as a scrum-half as well as a flanker. Ben remains uncapped but his twin has showed that Jones’ idea works in practice.
As the player tasked with distributing off England’s lineout, he passed the ball swiftly and accurately to Courtney Lawes.
He immediately followed this up by performing a more traditional flanker task, securing the ball at the ruck after Tuilagi’s carry and allowing Ben Youngs to get the ball away quickly.
He linked up well with Youngs again later in the same match. First, he showed his passing skills, unleashing Tuilagi. Then he arrived at the ruck to support Tuilagi and as Youngs tries to dummy through the line, he got up from the ruck to take the offload and get the ball sweetly to Jonny May.
This doubling up with Youngs was seen again against Wales with Curry setting up England’s first try. Again, he was the first distributor off the lineout, which allowed Youngs the space to make a perfect pass back to Anthony Watson. It was a perfect example of how England were using Curry in pre-planned moves.
Taking one for the team
Having a No8 like Vunipola can make life very easy for a scrum-half, reliably getting the team over the gain line and giving the No9 options in attack. But that is not the only way to help out a scrum-half.
The way Curry was playing at No8 seemed to be bringing out the best in Youngs, who had two standout games in a row. Curry’s comfort acting as a sweeper and a distributor meant Youngs could pick and choose his opportunities more to maximise his impact, while his clever carrying meant the team didn’t get stuck behind the gain line.
In the same way that having one flanker responsible for the grunt work allows the other to focus on turnovers and link play, having a No8 like Curry freed up other players to focus on their own game (incidentally, he still did a lot of the grunt work).
He is not the first flanker to successfully convert to No8, of course. In recent years, David Pocock and Josh Navidi demonstrated how roles across the back row can be interchangeable as long as you have balance.
But Curry is perhaps one of the most interesting modern examples, given the variety of ways he was used in the position. Has Jones found a genuine alternative to Vunipola at No8 for England? After a shaky start, it seems like he might have done.
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