Sunday 17 November 2019

Ruaidhri O'Connor: 'England's dynamic duo have been key in side's journey to final'


Flankers Sam Underhill (left) and Tom Curry have just 32 international caps between them but they have been a revelation in Japan. Photo: Getty Images
Flankers Sam Underhill (left) and Tom Curry have just 32 international caps between them but they have been a revelation in Japan. Photo: Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor in Tokyo

After they'd captured the Grand Slam in 2016, Chris Robshaw and James Haskell posed side by side in the winning dressing-room with a pair of white shirts bearing the number six and a half on the back.

The lack of an openside flanker had been a stick to beat England with in the post-Neil Back era and the two players who were most heavily criticised for not filling the role properly were entitled to have the last laugh.

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That summer, they went on tour to Australia and played key roles in a clean sweep. The ghosts of the 2015 World Cup were exorcised to a degree, but Eddie Jones had longer-term plans in mind. Fast-forward three years and the Australian coach is in Japan with England, but his six-and-a-halves are no longer in the picture.

Haskell has retired, Robshaw is no longer involved and in their place are a pair of flankers who fit the bill for exactly what England have been crying out for since 2003.

Tom Curry (21) and Sam Underhill (23) have become mainstays of this team in a short space of time.

With only 32 caps between them, they are inexperienced, but their highlights reel is already impressive. After last Saturday's performance against New Zealand, it's a few minutes longer.

'They've still got so much more growth in them as well and at a young age, they have the ability to be world-class," said England defence coach John Mitchell, who gave Richie McCaw his international debut when he was All Blacks coach. There's a lot of McCaw and a lot of (David) Pocock in them, but they're quicker.

"The game has evolved as well. A few years back, to go from No 7 to 6 would have been a difficult adjustment, but Tom Curry has really developed his set-piece skills, working with one of the best - Steve Borthwick.

"A few years ago, with the mindset of another openside flanker, he would have probably turned it down as being too challenging, I think. Having played in the back-row and coached a lot of fine back-rowers in the world at a particular time, to be associated with their development and then, this crew, you get a bit of a feel for who is outstanding and who isn't.

"It's not just about the individual, it's about creating the right mix and making sure you've got the right back-rower coming on as well.

"They're a good group who complement each other well. You've got carry, they all enjoy tackling and they all enjoy poaching as well.

"And they've got to know each other a lot better as well and, while they have individual roles to fulfil, they became more aware of working together as a collective; as a combination.

"That's the biggest challenge as a back-row because they all come with a narrow way of thinking because they love hunting the ball."

Having neutralised Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea and Kieran Read, England's flankers have a different proposition on their hands in the form of an ultra-aggressive, powerful Springbok side in this Saturday's World Cup final.

And, given South Africa sub Francois Louw is a clubmate of Underhill and a regular opponent of Curry, there's a bit of inside knowledge to boot.

"My first impressions of Sam is that he is a quiet guy, softly-spoken, he loves a beer and I've joined him for many of those," Louw said.

"I think he has massively developed as a player, he has refined elements of his game that definitely came through this past weekend, especially on defence.

"His ability to stop momentum in the tackle, his presence at the breakdown with poaching and jackaling the ball and just discovering what rugby is all about.

"There are so many different ways to play the game. Being the young guy he is, it's being exposed to so many different concepts, strategies, different styles of players around you and adapting to that.

"He's got a massive hunger to learn and grow as a player which I think is one of the ultimate traits of a professional rugby player - that yearning desire to better yourself continuously and it's something he does possess. I think he's rightly rewarded to be selected for England and starting in the seven shirt.

"They had a very good performance against New Zealand. They must bring what they want to bring. We'll bring what we want to bring. It's going to be an immense battle.

"We're at the final stage of the ultimate competition within our sport, within our game. Both groups of players are going to have to dig really deep and front up. It will be an exciting challenge in that regard and we look forward to getting into that battle."

Scrum-half Faf de Klerk is a team-mate of Curry's and, while he knows how good the youngster is, he'll happily share all he knows with his 'Bok team-mates as club loyalty goes out the window.

"Tom Curry has been absolutely amazing for England this year, I don't think he's missed one minute for them, so he's always willing to work hard and up there with most of the stats," he said.

"I know him pretty well now and have a few things on him to share with the squad here, that's always a positive."

We'll find out on Saturday if that will be enough to stop England's destructive pair of complete No 7s working in tandem.

Irish Independent

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