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Lions legend believes Tom Curry will beat Hamish Watson to No.7 spot

By Chris Jones
England flanker Tom Curry. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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Lions legend Peter Winterbottom is predicting Tom Curry will become the best openside flanker in world rugby and can play a key role for the British and Irish Lions in their test series with South Africa this summer.

However, Winterbottom, who won 58 England caps and wore the Lions No 7 jersey in sevens tests – all against New Zealand – believes it is vital for Curry’s development that England stick to the attacking style of rugby which saw them defeat France not revert back to the ‘dull’ kicking tactics which head coach Eddie Jones has largely used since losing the 2019 Rugby World Cup final.

Jones recognises the special talent Curry possesses and said after the French victory: “He (Curry) is only going to keep improving. It’s frightening to think what he’s going to be like by the World Cup.”

Winterbottom, like Curry, evolved his game as he gained more international experience, improving his handling ability and becoming a crucial weapon for England and the Lions with his foraging at the breakdown and thumping tackling.

He has taken a keen interest in the careers of twins Tom and Ben Curry, who are the nephews of John Olver, the former England hooker, who captained Winterbottom when they both played at Harlequins.

After Curry’s outstanding performance against France, Winterbottom is expecting more of the same when England complete their Six Nations campaign against Ireland in Dublin on Saturday.

He told RugbyPass: “I thought Tom was outstanding against France and the way England played gave him so many more opportunities. If you are an openside and England are playing a conservative style of rugby, as they have done for who knows how long, it is not easy to stand out.

“As an openside you are not going to get that many opportunities to run with the ball and then it is all about your defensive work.

“When Tom came on the scene he was incredibly young and I was very annoyed when Eddie Jones made him No 8 for England. You had a guy learning his trade and who will potentially become the best in the world at No 7 and you are putting him at No 8, and I thought that was just wrong.

“Tom thrived with the way England played against France, carried the ball more and looked like he was getting into positions to use his ball-handling and off-loading. He has a big engine and gets around the pitch and is an all-style No 7, popping up into all different positions and that is very impressive.

“England have to keep the ball moving and into space and cannot go back to the kicking game. There is no point in doing that.

“It seems that the World Cup final defeat to South Africa in 2019 had a real impact on their thinking and the way they perceived how to win test matches. England just played pressure rugby and waited for mistakes and capitalised on that and two years later they have realised it is not about that.

“The game is not just about kicking – it is about creating opportunities.”

Winterbottom has also been impressed with the form of Hamish Watson, the combative Scotland openside, and sees him as Curry’s main rival for the Lions jersey for the three-Test series with the Springboks, which may be staged in the UK due to the impact of  COVID-19 in South Africa.

He added: “Tom is a hell of a player now and will get better and better and turn into someone like Richie McCaw.

“One of the interesting things is that Tom has been in an England team playing some pretty dull rugby, except for last Saturday, and I am sure he is desperate to get selected for whatever happens with the Lions this summer and he has some big competition from Hamish Watson of Scotland. It is a big year for Tom and having that competition for the Lions place is going to make him push even harder.

“At the moment I would pick Tom, although it will be a close thing with Watson, while you also have Justin Tipuric, a slightly different type of player.

“In a team playing quality rugby I think Tom offers a little bit more than Watson and is going to become the best in the world.”

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