Ben Curry has been a welcome reinforcement for Sale Sharks after his return from injury

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During the second day’s play of the first Test between England and New Zealand at Lord’s, Sky Sports pundit Rob Key outlined the two most common paths to an international debut in international cricket.

He explained that either promising youngsters are thrust into the action and left to mould themselves – or be moulded by coaches – to the demands of the highest level, or they wait to earn a place on the back of prolonged excellence in domestic cricket. Those two windows also exist in rugby union.

Take back-rowers in England under the tenure of Eddie Jones. Mark Wilson would count as an experienced operator that barged his way into the reckoning. Tom Curry, on the other hand, was blooded in Argentina at the end of his first season with Sale Sharks first-team.

His malleable progress since 2017 is partly reflected in the positional split of his 33 Test appearances. From a determined breakdown scavenger, Curry has improved other areas of his game such as lineout jumping and ball-carrying. The versatility he has developed must have been a factor in his selection for this summer’s British and Irish Lions tour.

Tom Curry’s Test appearances for England by position

Tom’s trip to South Africa may also present a chance for his twin brother. Ben Curry may privately curse the back spasm he suffered four years ago, which delayed a senior England bow and hastened the promotion of his sibling. However, he continues to reinforce his worth to Sale.

Ben was one of Sharks’ best players in a strong finish to the 2019-20 campaign and has returned impressively in recent weeks, following a lay-off of five and a half months, to boost his club’s Premiership title challenge. It feels strange to say that a 22-year-old has reached his second window of Test opportunity – and Jones was non-committal about his prospects last week – but the flanker has a strong case to feature against USA and Canada next month.

Defence: Craft and graft

Sale leant on aggressive, energetic defence in victories over Bath and Bristol Bears and Ben Curry has been a welcome reinforcement. He won a clever, momentum-swinging jackal turnover in the 68th minute at The Rec and was a prominent part of an excellent team performance against Pat Lam’s side 10 days ago.

In his first Premiership start since last November, Curry’s intelligence and athleticism were obvious. He begins this sequence in the middle of Sale’s defensive line as Kyle Sinckler prepares to take a pass from Max Malins. 

Bristol have three forwards up flat with fly-half Callum Sheedy nestled in behind to receive a pull-back:

Curry presses up alongside hooker Akker van der Merwe. He has to look after the threat of Sinckler’s propping partner Jake Woolmore, but cannot sell himself either. Bristol have six attackers beyond Sheedy poised to capitalise if Sinckler does throw a pull-back:

As it happens, Sinckler pops a flat pass. Curry is on hand to make a robust tackle on Woolmore that forces a knock-on:

Ben Curry 1

Breakdown decision-making is an important area in the development of young back-rowers. Curry conceded a number of penalties early in his Sale career. 

Now, while still opportunistic and effective on the ground, he seems unselfish and restrained. There is palpable craft to his defensive work.

Here, he and brother Tom – who have a happy history of combining against Bristol – are either side of centre Sam James. Chris Vui gathers a pass from Sheedy in the Bears’ midfield:

Ben joins James in the tackle on Vui, who is supported by Alapati Leiua. Meanwhile, Tom loiters:

Ben then drags Vui to the deck, presenting a jackalling opportunity to his twin…

…and backing away to fill the defensive line for the next phase:

Ben has completed 32 tackles in his last 151 minutes on the field – testament to his fitness levels but also to decision-making like this.

After half-time, Ben Curry forced two more turnovers by harassing Bristol’s half-backs smartly. This next passage begins as Sinckler carries between Tom Curry and Dan du Preez. Ben is beyond his two back-row colleagues:

Tom Curry jackals following his part in the tackle and Ben backs away so Sale keep as many men on their feet as possible:

Dan du Preez peels himself off the floor to join him, with Tom’s disruption buying time for Sale:

Ben Curry sizes up the next phase. Bristol have perhaps their four most dangerous attackers – Semi Radradra, Charles Piutau, Ben Earl and Max Malins – beyond playmaker Sheedy. 

Dave Attwood is flat alongside his fly-half, ready to run a decoy line that will theoretically hold Sale narrow:

Curry is too shrewd. He shoots past Attwood, tracking Andy Uren’s pass and occupying the eye-line of Sheedy. A fumble results:

Ben Curry 2

This screenshot, capturing the point at which Uren releases the pass, is telling. Curry is watching Bristol’s scrum-half. Although mindful of Attwood, he is ready to explode past the lock and towards Sheedy:

Around six minutes later, Curry makes this charge-down:

Ben Curry 3

Having started the lineout 10 metres back, he reacts to the raid of Faf de Klerk and shuts down Uren’s space brilliantly:

Jones praised the “fight” in Curry’s display. A week later, albeit against a vastly understrength Harlequins, he demonstrated plenty of attacking guile as well.

Attack: Fizzing passes and hitting holes

It will have been bizarre – and probably quite difficult – for Ben Curry to read reports that Jones was keen to convert him into a scrum-half. On Friday, though, there were sniping runs and crisp service that aided Sale’s attack.

Indeed, one first-half move hinged on Curry stepping into the scrum-half role. It begins with De Klerk feeds Jean-Luc du Preez in midfield. 

Watch where Curry starts. Also notice that Dan du Preez is edging towards the near touchline, where Harlequins scrum-half Martin Landajo is stationed:

From there, with Sale fly-half AJ MacGinty beyond the ruck, Curry becomes the scrum-half. De Klerk backpedals to become a first-receiver on the opposite side. A slick pass from Ben Curry feeds the Springbok, who loops the ball to Dan du Preez and outflanks Harlequins:

Ben Curry 4

Later, Curry cut an angle from midfield to threaten the ‘seam’ of Harlequins’ lineout defence between Luke Wallace and Elia Elia. Cameron Neild peeled away from a maul to feed him…

…and a big break followed. Curry might have reviewed this clip and thought that he could have released Van der Merwe to the try-line:

Ben Curry 5

Before he was replaced in the 57th minute, Curry fashioned a blindside raid. As Sale rumbles forward from a lineout, Harlequins have tighthead prop Will Collier and Landajo covering the space between the maul and the touchline:

Curry leaves his post in midfield…

…and calls for a pass from hooker Curtis Langdon…

…before fixing Louis Lynagh and returning the pass:

This pass, while De Klerk was in the sin bin, will no doubt have encouraged jokes that Curry could well become a scrum-half:

Ben Curry 6

However, on a serious note, the ability of other players to throw passes from the base of rucks so often enhances attacks. Jones said this last week:

“We’re anticipating at the [2023] World Cup [that rucks are] going to be pretty quick, which then allows you to attack on front-foot ball which brings in more instinctive skills rather than pattern rugby.”

Ben Curry certainly seems to possess instinctive skills on both sides of the ball. Privately, Jones used to tell Sale that he preferred the extra physicality that Tom offered. But there must be a chicken-and-egg argument here. Surely time at Test level has helped Tom to settle and acquire an appreciation for what is needed?

The question of balance will shape England’s back-row selection. All of a sudden, they have plenty of mobility. Jones will probably want to complement that with the heft of blindside options like George Martin or Ted Hill. South Africa’s imposing contingent of back-five forwards for the Lions series emphasises the need for power in the Test arena.

Honing his craft with Sale during a push for Premiership glory, having missed the first embarkation point for an international career, Ben Curry is doing all he can to earn an England introduction.

Match images courtesy of BT Sport