Why did England not call for Ben Curry?

Ben Curry

We came into the 2018 Six Nations buoyed by the tantalising prospect of a winner-takes-all grand slam decider between England and Ireland on the final weekend. The second-best team in the world versus the third-best. And it would be St Patrick’s day to boot. What a match it would be.

Well, what do they say about ‘best laid plans’ and all that… Ireland held up their end of the bargain and deservedly walked away with five wins and the silverware that only comes once in a generation, but by that point, England had long been out of the running, undone by Scotland and France before even setting eye on an emerald-green shirt.

England may have won two back-to-back tournaments and a record-equalling string of victories in the past couple of years, but this was proof, if ever, that the game does not stand still.

The breakdown. Discipline. Lack of ball carriers. These issues have marred English teams on a regular basis ever since that 2003 generation started to hang up their boots. And they reared their ugly heads once again in this tournament.

In particular, England were completely outplayed at the breakdown by the Scottish and French: the duo of Hamish Watson and John Barclay were a consistent nuisance, while the sight of Mathieu Bastareaud clamped onto the ball while England’s smallest player, George Ford, tried to shift him was just painful.

In those two matches, England conceded an eye-watering 13 and 15 penalties respectively, with a further 11 against the Irish (although the Irish actually out-did them with 12 on that one). Even in a winning effort against Wales they shipped 10 to the Welsh two. Add in the nine against Italy, and that’s an astonishing 58 across the tournament.

Discipline certainly needs to improve. But penalties conceded are often only a symptom of other issues – one was a failure to understand and adapt to the referee’s interpretation of various areas of the game. This is a similar problem to that which several of the Premiership sides experienced in the Champions Cup (I wrote about it in December here and it still feels pretty relevant) and definitely needs looking at.

But also feeding into this were other factors – namely those breakdown issues. England fielded a lock at six, and a six at seven – one who then packed down at eight for much of the match.

When Eddie Jones first came in, one of the best things he did was recognise the players he had at his disposal, pick them in their best positions and build the gameplan around them, rather than trying to shoehorn good players into a strategy which did not suit their natural game. Not any more, it seems.

There are mitigating factors. England were affected by injuries, with Tom Curry dislocating his wrist before the tournament and Sam Underhill a late returnee to the squad, before being ruled out of the rest of the season with a toe injury. So to some extent I can see the Courtney Lawes/Chris Robshaw combo was forced upon them initially.

However, I do not understand why other breakdown specialists were not called up, or why, when it went so badly against Scotland, changes were not made for France.

Casting our minds back to last May, and Ben Curry was initially named in the squad to face the Barbarians in a non-cap match. Alas injury struck and his brother Tom became a last-minute replacement. Now when Tom was ruled out, surely Ben would have been the obvious replacement?

Still only 19 years old, Ben won a league-high 14 turnovers from just 12 appearances for his club Sale last season (the second highest since stats-provider Opta started recording) – including a whopping six in one game – and a further 10 this season. He was excellent at the weekend as Sale thumped Worcester (which incidentally, also saw the return of his brother from injury). Although Ben travelled to South America last summer, he did not win a cap and has not even been involved in a senior training camp since. It is a curious case.

The way the breakdown is being refereed seems to have affected things, at least in the Premiership. Alongside the stricter enforcement of players going off their feet at the breakdown, the ruck rules have been changed which mean the defensive team does not have to commit bodies. This combination means the defensive line often just fans out rather than competing for the ball, soaking up phase after phase of attack (there are 20% more collisions apparently). This would seem to reduce the role of a breakdown terrier somewhat.

However, what some teams have realised, is there is still a role for a scavenger – they just have to pick their moments. John Barclay and Hamish Watson did this excellently against England. Rather than diving into every ruck and getting pinged off the park, they let England go through multiple attacks, trusting in their defensive line, and letting the high number of phases begin to pull England out of shape. This resulted in isolated ball carriers and a chance for one of them to pounce.

There has been a noticeable difference between the refereeing in the Premiership and international/Champions Cup in this area – and perhaps this is also affecting selection. What it could mean, interestingly, is a certain kind of player – a breakdown specialist who struggles with a high rate of conceding penalties at Premiership level (Ben Curry for example) – will be more effective at the top level than they are for their club. It seems odd to be advocating a player who concedes a high penalty count as the answer for England, given their discipline woes, but there you go. There are penalties, and there are penalties. Looking at the game, I think Ben Curry would be more effective – and less penalised – for England than for Sale.

Eddie Jones had a ready-made replacement for Tom Curry and Sam Underhill when injury struck, one who is ruining opposition breakdowns on a regular basis for his club and would have had a real impact for his country – why he was not called into the squad is one bafflement which continues to irk. Jones is now running out of time to blood new talent: Tom Curry may now be back but Ben is the man in form and deserves a chance. Both should go to South Africa with England.

Who do you think should be brought into the England squad?

By Henry Ker

18 thoughts on “Why did England not call for Ben Curry?

  1. You could run similar articles as to why EJ didn’t pick other players for other positions. I guess we’ll never know. If he doesn’t pick some fringe/apprentice players to tour in SA and sticks with the tried & trusted, then 2019 will be a disaster.

    “This combination means the defensive line often just fans out rather than competing for the ball, soaking up phase after phase of attack”…..Rugby League anyone?? It’s in danger of going down that path.

    1. Indeed – it started out as a a piece on my issues with Jones’ wider selection policy, but would have become more of a book than a blog.

      Jack Maunder is another – toured as the reserve scrum half last summer but not been seen since, and it meant a call from the wilderness for Wigglesworth. In part this was because he has not been selected for Exeter, but then it was a bit of a risk to select a player who was not necessarily first choice with his club and therefore likely to struggle for regular game time. They had an interesting discussion about that on the 5Live Rugby Union weekly podcast with Chris Jones and Ugo Monye.

      1. Indeed, and as you’ve highlighted below, if EJ doesn’t give a hoot about club form (look at all those guys who did a number for him down in Argentina and have yet to feature meaningfully again) then he’s solely picking on a style of play and going with an oft-quoted Lancaster soundbite of player credit in the bank. Hartley wasn’t even a first choice at Saints, let alone the country and yet the guy gets the starting hooker and captains berth….and for 50 mins at that. At least persevere with Slade or Lozowski, especially in light of Ford looking flakey in the 6N and Farrell not being so much of a creative or running 10. And the 9 position (or lack of) that he’s found himself in is just unforgivable. Every man and his dog can see he left that particular cupboard bare with the inclusion of Robson and Simpson being screamed and called for from the rooftops.

        The guy is operating in lastminute.com territory now. The majority of his squad are on the ropes and look done in. There will only be more injuries to come.

    1. Both good players, although Evans is not often first choice for Leicester (been O’Connor recently and then Luke Hamilton at the weekend). My quibble over Curry is he has already been involved in the squad, to the point where he was picked ahead of his brother for the BaaBaas game, Jones obviously likes his style of play, he toured South America with the team, and then has been cast aside and not been seen since.

  2. Good piece and I completely agree. You might also ask why Mark Wilson who was excellent in Argentina wasn’t selected. Eddie says he doesn’t care about club form it’s whether or not he thinks they can play at international level. Well we know Wilson can and Eddie ‘s marvellous reasoning for not picking him was that his game was off at club level!! So I really can’t see how one can begin to take his ‘reasoning ‘ seriously. How much say does Borthwick have in selection? Pretty much everyone reckons the selections are all down to Eddie….and the random autocratic reasoning fits the random autocratic style.
    Was it ever a great idea to pick players like Maunder or have Vellacott in the EPS rather than Robson when they have so little experience and when it comes to the crunch he’s not going to risk playing them?
    I couldn’t be more critical of Eddie ‘s decisions and managerial style over the last months.


  3. The death knell has sounder for England and Eddie. Ireland battled past France and Wales and were been made to look good by a poor England team.

    There is only one conclusion, NZ win the RWC yet again.

    1. 2019 is too bigger a chunk to chew for EJ. I’m sure they’ll give their all for the shirt, but it won’t be enough. Maybe 2023 will be more of a success.

  4. I have to agree with your think piece Henry and by extension, the other selection issues it raises.
    I do find myself starting to wonder that those in the know down under were correct in saying that Jones would have two good seasons followed by a poor third and a subsequent slide into mediocrity and player exhaustion both physical and mental.
    The other question is did the RFU know about this when the appointment was made? If so it would be too much to swallow following the Lancaster debacle. Hope beats eternal and maybe EJ is just having a blip and the players need a break. On the other hand Maro’s dismissal of Sir Clive’s suggestion of fatigue may have been aimed at Woodward but also reinforces the theory that Jones simply failed to get the best out of the squad this time around.
    Puzzling times.

  5. Jones said he learnt much from the training regimes of professional cycling. One thing he has failed to grasp is the importance of rest as part of the training cycle. Professional rugby players game time needs to be managed if performance is to peak at the right time. You are only required to be tournament fit at the time you actually play the tournament. Play rest over the summer. Blood some new players over the summer and ensure players reach Japan in peak condition having had the right amount of training and recovery. It is really not that complicated.

    1. The question to everyone then is, would you accept losing the South Africa series in order to rest some of our lions and blood new players in key positions?

      My view: as long as we are still competitive, and if it means properly establishing reserve choices at scrum half, outside centre and in the back row, and our best players can have a proper preseason to be ready for NZ in the autumn, then yes.

      1. I don’t think EJ would accept a loss in SA. It’s not in his DNA to chuck a series in order to rest his first choice squad. There could well be a decent amount of chat and some very candid conversations going on between EJ and the club’s DOR’s.

      2. it’s striking that balance though. how useful is it blooding new players if they get torn new ones!

      3. Yes in short.
        The 1st team for want of any other phrase needs resting.
        Eddie has the opportunity to field a ‘back up/developmental’ team to resolve back-row, half back, midfield and full back issues.
        There is no other chance in the rugby calendar left to him. Next year’s 6ns would then be for fine tweaking.

  6. Yes I agree with you Henry. Talking of people who are selected then disappear what happened to Marchant? Selected last summer, injured then ignored. Another baffling sequence….let’s give him a shot at outside centre.
    And Robson has to be given a real chance…If he isn’t I wash my hands with Eddie.
    The only problem I have with letting the series go to blood players (many of whom he should have tried before) is that it lets Eddie off the hook when he should be under maximum scrutiny. So that his selectorial failings actually help him as we are all now very aware we have fallen behind the other nations in bringing players through. I am in the camp who thinks if he is turning into the disaster many predicted he would be he should be got rid of. A new coach would probably get a new coach bounce afterall.

  7. I think one has to ask how many 19 year old flankers have been successful at full international level. I can´t think of any. Some players may look very good at that age but simply lack the physical strength and stamina to compete on equal terms with older, stronger men. The game is getting ever harder, burn out and injury is a real issue. and good though players like the Curry´s, Willis, Simmonds and Mercer may be, I don´t see many of the better sides quivering in their boots at the thought of playing against them in the 2019 World Cup, however much potential they have. They need looking after and bringing on carefully, not chucking into a test series that is likely to be thoroughly brutal against a huge pack. Simmonds is a case in point. May make an excellent 7 at international level but shown to be neither big enough or powerful enough as an 8 against older men in the past couple of internationals.

    1. Ahhh, Sam Simmonds. The answer to our centre woes! In partner with Daly or Slade would be a sight to behold.

    2. Andy
      Richie McCaw was 20 when first capped and 23 upon being made captain.
      Not sure age is everything. The ABs would say something along the lines of “If good enough play him!”
      Riko Ione (probably mispelt) debuted at 19yrs old.
      Age as an exclusionary factor…don’t buy it.
      The sooner Ej bloods his ‘ young guns’ the better! I think most people are in agreement that he can’t can’t afford to continue fudging it with a lock at 6. Even Robshaw’s powers are probably diminishing as the famous 6.5 (along with his pace)
      With just over 12 mths to go EJ has the time, just, to embed the next generation of flankers whether it be Ben Curry, Tom Curry, Mercer, Willis or Simmonds. It may now be a bit late for the world cup (as some have stated) but i’d rather the team be settled and have re-found its feet than exit a second wc with a whimper due to persisting with old stock deemed ‘safe hands!’

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