Among the defining characteristics of a champion team is supposed to be a pair of hard-bitten, seen-it-all flankers. New Zealand’s old firm of Richie McCaw and Jerome Kaino were a prime example, steering the All Blacks to glory at the past two Rugby World Cups. South Africa had the teak-tough Schalk Burger and Juan Smith in 2007, while England in 2003 benefitted from the high-class duo of Richard Hill and Neil Back.
Aside from talent, the common denominator this century has been a lot of miles on the clock. McCaw, Hill and Back did not win a World Cup until they were over 30 and, of the rest, Burger was alone in doing so before the age of 25. It is necessary to rewind right back to the amateur era and the legendary All Black Michael Jones in 1987 to find a flanker who conquered the world before his 23rd birthday.
Which brings us to England’s Tom Curry, now just 80 minutes away from breaking Jones’s long-standing record. Curry only turned 21 in June yet, alongside his 23-year-old teammate Sam Underhill, he has been among the most influential players at this World Cup. If England’s increasingly impressive defence proves the difference against South Africa this weekend, the newly-minted word ‘Undercurry’ (strong, unyielding, seriously tasty) may soon be pushing for inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Even if their team falls short, Curry and Underhill will return home having had the ultimate seal of approval from their defence coach John Mitchell. The ex-All Black coach has worked with many of the best back-rowers in the modern game and is seldom prone to exaggeration but in this instance he has already made his mind up. Not only do England’s youthful duo remind him of McCaw and the esteemed Wallaby David Pocock but, he says, they are already more dynamic.
“There’s a lot of McCaw and a lot of Pocock in them but they’re quicker,” suggested Mitchell, after England had finished training in the Tokyo rain. “Having played in the back-row and coached a lot of fine back-rowers in the world you get a bit of a feel for who is outstanding and who isn’t. These two have still got so much more growth in them … they have the ability to be world class.”
It is also Mitchell’s view that, collectively, England still have more in the tank as they prepare to cope with the uber-physical challenge of South Africa. Stopping a herd of charging wildebeest would be only marginally easier than tackling some of their opponents’ monster forwards in full cry but, as Curry and Underhill demonstrated last Saturday, the bigger they are the harder they fall. Their chop tackling and insatiable work-rate effectively left the All Blacks with nowhere to go.
If it helps slightly that, to use Mitchell’s phrase, the pair “have got rocks and boulders in their shoulders” their commitment has been staggering. England’s bruise brothers have also made a deliberate point of tackling lower, among the tactics which made life so awkward for New Zealand. “Yes, we do work on that,” confirmed Mitchell. “We address it as part of the way we practise but the players own it. Every team has different strengths so the carrier types coming towards you every weekend are slightly different. That requires some adjustments but they are bright lads. They’re smart as well.”
With the entire team queuing up to make dominant tackles on behalf of their mates alongside them, Mitchell continues to take the view that defence is, ultimately, what wins World Cups. “Yeah, I think defence has been a common thread that’s come out of World Cups over the years and it’s going to be really important again on the weekend. It’s important for us to continue to get better in that particular area and be even more patient in the way we execute.
“When I watched the Springboks as a kid and then played against them and coached there, they are probably a side that can create pressure like no other team in the world. It is what Springboks rugby has always been built on – that ability to create pressure. But what’s great is there is now another team who can create that type of pressure – and that is us.”
Curry, Underhill, Lawes, Vunipola, Vunipola, Itoje, Sinckler, George … find an easy route through that formidable posse and South Africa will fully deserve to lift the Webb Ellis Cup. Resolute defence, as Wales discovered on Sunday, is not enough on its own to win major Test matches but it can make a decisive difference. “We are about to witness the two most powerful rugby teams in the world,” confirmed Mitchell. “The gain line is going to be huge.”
On the evidence of recent weeks, even the massive Springbok forwards should brace themselves.