Just like buses, England have been waiting an age for a genuine openside and suddenly two have come at once.
On Saturday, in England’s 40-16 quarter-final victory over Australia, the Kamikaze Kids Tom Curry and Sam Underhill both put in world-class performances to nullify the threat of the esteemed opposition flankers Michael Hooper and David Pocock. Pooper were out-paced, out-thought and out-gunned.
The 24-point victory is England’s biggest in a knock-out game and was built upon the tireless harrying and destructive blitz tackles of the English opensides. What makes this all the more impressive is Curry is only 21 and Underhill 23, and the two have just 30 caps between them – over 150 less than Pooper.
England have had limited opportunity to field the two together prior to the World Cup tournament, and it is now easy to forget Mark Wilson was a mainstay of the side as recently as the Six Nations, as well as being England’s player of the series in the Autumn.
But since Jones opted to field them together, Curry and Underhill (Cunderhill? Undurry?) have never looked back – this is a brilliant double-act with the potential to rival the combo of Richard Hill and Neil Back. Interestingly, Hill has been mentoring Curry since under-17s and is linking up with the pair in his role as England’s team manager.
If that seems premature, well it is. But if England go the distance in this tournament it will be thanks in a large part to these two. And even if England do not, the future looks bright – Japan 2019 has seen Tom Curry and Sam Underhill come of age. Both could feasibly play two more world cups if their bodies hold up.
Openside partnerships have given England some grim memories in the past: Hooper and Pocock knocking England out in 2015, Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric crushing England’s grand slam ambitions in Cardiff in 2013.
So to see Curry and Underhill playing with such unbridled energy, speed and physicality was every England fan’s dream. The moment when Curry smashed Reece Hodge – ‘atomised’ him in the words of Nick Mullins – with Underhill waiting to pounce on the ball was truly something.
Eight tackles so far with one missed, Tom Curry is putting in a shift for the @englandrugby back row.
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 19, 2019
Anytime an Australian ball carrier stepped up, one of these two were there to send them backwards. Curry made 17 tackles, Underhill 20. No England player had ever made more than 16 tackles in a World Cup game before – tellingly on Saturday there were five (Owen Farrell, Mako Vunipola and Jamie George the other three). I have said it before, but the way John Mitchell has transformed this England defence is mightily impressive.
Hooper and Pocock have been the benchmark of dual opensides for a long time, almost single-handedly dragging Australia kicking and screaming to the World Cup final in 2015. They are perhaps past their best now – Pocock in particular, at 31, seems to have lost a yard of pace, a split second that previously let him limpet onto the ball with such effect. But Michael Hooper is still only 27 and should be in his prime – something that is occasionally easy to forget given he has already won an astonishing 99 caps.
The biggest difference for Pooper now is probably the loss of the glue that made these two work – Scott Fardy. Without his tireless graft, Australia’s opensides look slightly one dimensional.
Curry and Underhill are also operating without a glue player, instead they have the brute force of Billy Vunipola between them, who is tasked with one job – to carry and carry hard. That they are still effective without a traditional blindside is a hat-tip to how they have both brought their game on in the past year. Apart from physical hits and jackalling, both are more effective carriers than before and picking their moments to attack the breakdown better. Add to that the speed and workrate of the rest of the pack – the likes of Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje and Jamie George – and the opensides are flourishing.
However, for all the accolades I am throwing their way, a far sterner test waits around the corner – a World Cup semi-final and Sam Cane and Ardie Savea, another dual-openside combo that has been astonishingly effective so far for New Zealand. It will be an fascinating and crucial battle.
New Zealand completely schooled Ireland at the breakdown in their quarter final, despite having dark-arts technicians themselves like Peter O’Mahony. Curry and Underhill will need to up their game once again.
The last time England beat New Zealand (in the days of yore at the start of Stuart Lancaster’s tenure in 2012) Tom Wood was the key man, besting an all-time great in Richie McCaw at the breakdown. Hindsight has always focused on Manu Tuilagi’s rampage in the midfield, but Wood was game-changer. Curry or Underhill needs to be that man on Saturday.
It will be particularly important with Beauden Barrett at 15. The world’s best 10 has become the world’s best 15 in order to incorporate Richie Mo’unga at flyhalf, and is looking lethal with that much more time to read the game and pick his point of attack. However, in joining the line as a second playmaker New Zealand rely on a pendulum swing with another player (often Mo’unga) covering the back in the case of counter attack. This can leave a second’s space if you can turn them over. A tall order, but a potential opportunity.
Barrett at the back also means that if you kick badly, New Zealand will punish you more than any other team. Curry and Underhill, alongside the wingers Jonny May and Anthony Watson, will be crucial in following up and shutting down the space to stop a counter attack.
This will be the hardest and most high-pressure game England have had since the World Cup final in 2007. Given their form and players at their disposal, they will not fear New Zealand. Beating them is another matter. But whatever the result, you can be certain the Kamikaze Kids will take the fight to them.
By Henry Ker