Springboks provide acid test despite unstoppable Tom Curry’s mantra

“I know it sounds like the biggest cliche in the book,” says Tom Curry in a break between training stints with the England squad in Jersey to a collective sigh from a small band of reporters hanging on his every word. “But we can only focus on the next game.”

That’s the trouble with cliches. They are usually true. England open their autumn Test campaign against Tonga at Twickenham this Saturday. Curry is right in acknowledging that the squad should not get ahead of themselves before a first course which preludes tastier dishes, meetings with Australia and South Africa. “Tonga will bring their physicality and pace and they can cause us problems,” Curry adds.

The Sale flanker has just been asked if Eddie Jones’s side have unfinished business before the Springboks Test on 20 November. The 23-year-old started all three matches during the moribund British & Irish Lions campaign and was voted the young player of the tournament after the Springboks defeated England in the World Cup final.

If anyone can be described as a permanent fixture in Jones’s side it is the estimable Curry, whose strength at the breakdown and footballing skills make him undroppable. “No. Every game is unfinished business. There isn’t a feeling of frustration after the Lions tour. We’ve parked that one.”

Tom Curry and Sam Simmonds of England wrestle during a training session in Jersey.
Tom Curry and Sam Simmonds of England wrestle during a training session in Jersey. Curry’s strength at the breakdown and footballing skills make him undroppable. Photograph: Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection/Getty Images

He knows that Tonga, whom England have a habit of meeting in World Cups, will be a challenge despite one of their key players, the fly-half Kurt Morath, turning 37 next month. The team coached by Toutai Kefu mainly play in France. Tongan rugby may be short of cash but they will not be short of motivation. England once put 101 points past Tonga but it is more likely we will see a game like that in Sapporo two years ago, when Jones’s team made a spluttering start to their World Cup before subduing the islanders 35-3.

The power of Manu Tuilagi was vital for that game in 2019 and England supporters will hope Curry’s Sale clubmate can rekindle his old fire this autumn. Tuilagi is now 30 and his career has been horribly curtailed by injuries but if Jones pairs him with Gloucester’s equally powerful centre Mark Atkinson next weekend, the Tonga defence will have their work cut out and there may be a rumble under the Twickenham turf.

Curry, meanwhile, continues to embellish his reputation in the back row, where England’s stock of breakdown experts continues to grow by the day. He and Maro Itoje have been spoken about as future England captains when Owen Farrell’s tenure comes to an end. What does he see as his leadership skills? “I think it’s all about being yourself. About being authentic, not trying to be Winston Churchill. I try not to overthink things and just learn something with every match I play,” is his measured reply.

Curry has now played 33 of those matches for England as well as the three summer Tests for the Lions since becoming the youngest player to start at flanker for England and the youngest player for almost a century when he took his bow against Argentina four years ago.

Who Jones picks in his back row this autumn will be instructive. A combination of Curry, Sam Simmonds and Sam Underhill will provide plenty of dynamism but will not pose a massive ball-carrying threat. Jones could also pick a combination of Alex Dombrandt at No 8 and Lewis Ludlam at No 7, both of whom are in stellar form for their clubs, with Courtney Lawes at No 6 where he featured for the Lions and continues to play for his club Northampton.

It is an embarrassment of riches particularly as two more contenders – the Wasps duo Alfie Barbeary and Jack Willis – will be in the mix by the time they recover from injures, while candidates such as Ben Earl at Saracens and the underrated Worcester back-rower Ted Hill have been recently discarded by England’s head coach.

Tom Curry is tackled by Siya Kolisi during the 2019 World Cup final.
Tom Curry is tackled by Siya Kolisi during the 2019 World Cup final. Photograph: Francois Nel/World Rugby/Getty Images

Either way, it is difficult to see Billy Vunipola returning to this England side in the near future. Vunipola will continue to stay in the shop window across the road from Twickenham on Sunday afternoon when Saracens hope to put one over the reigning English champions, Harlequins. Jones’s dropping of the Vunipola brothers has made headlines but, in truth, it should probably have happened sooner. Billy was in no kind of form at the last World Cup and has been off-colour ever since.

The Vunipolas’ clubmate Jamie George has more reason to be resentful but can at least make his case after an ankle injury to Luke Cowan-Dickie put him out for the autumn and the admirable Saracens hooker was restored to the squad.

It would make sense for the Sydney-born Leicester hooker Nic Dolly, who once lived with Tom and twin brother Ben during a spell at Sale, to start against Tonga and George to regain his No 2 spot in the England front row against Australia and South Africa.

The Wallabies, meanwhile, have been hit by a number of withdrawals from their squad by their Japan-based players while the Springboks have been hit by injuries, most notably to their wing Cheslin Kolbe and Curry’s Sale clubmate Faf de Klerk. The absence of the evergreen Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi and Sean McMahon is a major blow for the Wallabies but once again it will be the Springboks who will provide the acid test for England in front of welcome big crowds once more at Twickenham.


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