England experiment against Wales, but one new partnership will be crucial to their Rugby World Cup hopes

Tom Curry moves from openside to blindside flanker to partner Sam Underhill in what could prove to be England’s starting back-row combination in Japan

Jack de Menezes
Saturday 10 August 2019 08:03
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Rugby World Cup: England issue injury update

England will start their first Rugby World Cup warm-up match with two uncapped players in their starting line-up and a further three among the replacements. In stark contrast, Wales will take to the field with 12 of the side that beat their fiercest rivals six months ago and powered to the Six Nations Grand Slam.

Friday morning’s team announcements could not have brought more differing outcomes if they tried, with Eddie Jones going down the experimental route and Warren Gatland going all guns blazing, setting up what could be a one-sided affair at Twickenham.

England do have world class talent sprinkled through their side, with Billy Vunipola at No 8 and two British and Irish Lions Test starters in Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson among the back three. But the plan is very much to experiment with new ideas and combinations, and hope that the outcome is if not a victory then something close enough to build on throughout the month.

There are new players and new partnerships across the board, most notably Willi Heinz and George Ford at half-back and Piers Francis and Henry Slade in the centre.

But the one of most interest features two very familiar names competing for the same position – or so we thought. One of Jones’ big selection headaches when it comes to the first XV is who to play at openside flanker. Tom Curry and Sam Underhill have both staked their own impressive claims to the No 7 shirt over the last 14 months – Curry enjoying a breakthrough tour in South Africa last year and Underhill enjoying a mighty autumn series against New Zealand and Argentina.

The prospect of facing both would be hell for any forwards coach, so it is no surprise to see England do exactly that this weekend, naming Curry at blindside and Underhill at openside – with the sizeable Vunipola between them.

“It’s something that we want to give a go,” said defence coach John Mitchell, who will relish the havoc that the pair could wreak together at the breakdown. “Two big imposing loose forwards with fantastic work rates, who love carrying the ball, love linking and they obviously have good ground skills.

“Tom’s had some experience at Sale at six. It’ll be interesting to see how they work together. Six has to be a lot more patient than a seven or eight that’s basically closer to the ball. That creates a different defensive mindset for someone like Tom. He’s adjusting well to the position.”

The intrigue surrounding the partnership could prove to have the biggest impact on England’s World Cup campaign. While Heinz, Francis and debutant Ruaridh McConnochie are competing for a place in the squad, Curry and Underhill could well prove to be Jones’s starting flankers, especially as Brad Shields appears to be losing his race to be fit to take a place in the 31-man squad.

England are also blessed with plenty of back-row options that could see them shave off one of the 31 and make it up elsewhere, such as at prop or scrum-half. With Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes both ample options at six, Curry and Underhill able to play both sides of the pack and Mark Wilson proving last autumn he is a sold back-up to Vunipola at No 8, Jones could choose to take just three back-row specialists to Japan.

Tom Curry starts for England against Wales in the unfamiliar position of blindside flanker

But first his squad must negotiate the four warm-up matches, starting with Wales this Sunday. It is a full-strength Wales at that, and following the team announcements the visitors went from 9/4 outsiders to 11/10 contenders, marginally behind England’s generous 10/11 tag as favourites.

Mitchell confirmed that no agreement had been discussed between the England and Wales camps over what line-ups would be fielded, but it is a challenge the players are still going to relish. After all, they can’t really afford not to at this stage.

“We didn’t have a clue,” said George Ford, who will captain England once more in the absence of Owen Farrell. “The first time we found out their selection was today. I think it’s what you want as a player, you want to come up against the best they can throw at you, whatever team you’re playing against.

“The most important thing is England, this England team, and we want to go out there and win on Sunday. You never pull a white shirt on wanting anything else, and for us to win we’ve got to play as a collective, we’ve got to play as a team, we’ve got to rip in for each other, we’ve got to be selfless and we’ve got to put our best individual performances out there as well so that’s what we’re going for this week.

“The key for us this weekend is that everything is not going to brilliantly for us in the game, and there’s going to be periods in the game where it might be going anything but brilliantly, but we’ve got to find a way to stick in there together, find a way to get the momentum back in the game or counteract whatever Wales are going to throw at us and I think if we do that we’ll be in with a chance.”

Sam Underhill partners Tom Curry at flanker

But even though victory remains of great importance – not least because it would halt Wales’ winning run of 14 matches from creeping closer to England and New Zealand’s record tally of 18 – it is not the be all and end all of Sunday’s match as it would be in Japan in October.

“I’m sure they’re approaching it differently to how they would normally approach playing England because our approach is we want to try things and see things,” admitted 87-capped scrum-half Ben Youngs. “How we will prepare for Wales in a Six Nations or knockout game, we’d prepare solely ‘right this is Wales, this is our game plan’.

“But at the weekend there are some things that we want to try that are just to see how we do that you normally wouldn’t do. So it does have a different feel.

Billy Vunipola starts alongside Curry and Underhill in the back-row

“Victory is very important because you can’t hide away from winning and winning is momentum. Through every tournament you want momentum going into it – of course you do. That breeds confidence, it allows you to get that winning mindset, so of course we want to win. But there is an element of understanding that at times as a team that we might try something and it might not come off. It’s just the case of ‘park it, right what’s the next job?’

“There are going to be a few teething things at times and you have to work for that cohesion. A lot of those combinations haven’t played together so there will be an element of that.”

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