Hamish Watson and Tom Curry are both competing for Test places
One thing that should not change, regardless of how British and Irish Lions matches fit into the future of rugby union, is the scope these tours provide for coaches to channel Dr Frankenstein as they ponder formidable combinations and assemble them accordingly.
Perhaps even more so than his midfield, Warren Gatland’s back row is the area in which it is most important to hit upon chemistry and strike a balance. And there could be one potentially devastating partnership that he is keeping up his sleeve: that of Hamish Watson and Tom Curry in tandem.
So far, it has been a reasonable assumption that Gatland will counter South Africa’s tall and dynamic pack by picking one of Courtney Lawes or Tadhg Beirne at blindside flanker. Both are outstanding players in excellent form. With three specialist number eights in the squad, the stage seemed set for an openside shootout between Watson and Curry.
Courtney Lawes carries against Sigma Lions
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That might still be the case, of course – if we ever reach the Test series. But, theoretically, an Anglo-Scottish collaboration of two marauders together would hurl something unexpected at the Springboks and give the Lions an edge.
Would Gatland even consider it?
Before a Covid-enforced reshuffle , which forced him to deploy seven forwards on the bench against the Cell C Sharks on Wednesday, Gatland had stuck to the conventional formula of five forwards and three backs among his replacements in each of his 22 matches as Lions head coach.
Over his 12 years in charge of Wales, the New Zealander opted for a six-two split – South Africa’s favoured strategy – just twice. Funnily enough, both of those games were against Uruguay at Rugby World Cups, in 2015 and 2019. You have to think Gatland could have been preserving front-line backs for the rest of the tournament.
It is impossible to consider any back-row selection in isolation from the team’s locks, so here are the back-five forwards, as well as the replacements in numbers 19 and 20, for the last six Lions Tests:
Vs Australia 2013
1st Test: 4. Alun Wyn Jones, 5. Paul O’Connell, 6. Tom Croft, 7. Sam Warburton, 8. Jamie Heaslip | 19. Geoff Parling, 20. Dan Lydiate
2nd Test: 4. Alun Wyn Jones, 5. Geoff Parling, 6. Dan Lydiate, 7. Sam Warburton, 8. Jamie Heaslip | 19. Tom Croft, 20. Sean O’Brien
3rd Test: Alun Wyn Jones, 5. Geoff Parling, 6. Dan Lydiate, 7. Sean O’Brien, 8. Taulupe Faletau | 19. Richie Gray, 20. Justin Tipuric
Vs New Zealand 2017
1st Test: 4. Alun Wyn Jones, 5. George Kruis, 6. Peter O’Mahony, 7. Sean O’Brien, 8. Taulupe Faletau | 19. Maro Itoje, 20. Sam Warburton
2nd Test: 4. Maro Itoje, 5, Alun Wyn Jones, 6. Sam Warburton, 7. Sean O’Brien, 8. Taulupe Faletau | 19. Courtney Lawes, 20. CJ Stander
3rd Test: 4. Maro Itoje, 5, Alun Wyn Jones, 6. Sam Warburton, 7. Sean O’Brien, 8. Taulupe Faletau | 19. Courtney Lawes, 20. CJ Stander
One thing to note is how, in four of six matches, Gatland has used a player capable of covering second and back rows in the 19 shirt. Tom Croft, Maro Itoje and Lawes all fit that criteria.
Even if hefty scrummaging locks are essential against South Africa – more on that later – this demonstrates how Gatland likes to lean upon versatility when configuring his bench. He could leave Lawes and Beirne in reserve, because he is not averse to unleashing a pair of scavengers.
Sam Warburton and Sean O’Brien were an effective enterprise against New Zealand four years ago. Gatland picked the former alongside Justin Tipuric for a seminal victory over England in 2013. Wales won the 2019 Six Nations Grand Slam with Tipuric and Josh Navidi uniting.
Watson has won nine of the 14 Tests he has started with Jamie Ritchie for Scotland, including away games at Twickenham and Stade de France. Curry’s record in harness with Sam Underhill for England, either as a blindside flanker or a number eight, stands at 11 wins from 13 Tests.
Sam Underhill and Tom Curry speak to England head coach Eddie Jones
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South Africa’s last defeat, in the pool stage of Rugby World Cup 2019, came at the hands of an All Blacks outfit that featured flankers Sam Cane and Ardie Savea either side of Kieran Read. New Zealand’s breakdown disruption proved pivotal.
Should Gatland opt for Watson and Curry, he has some adhesive to glue together his back five. Its name is Taulupe Faletau.
How would it work?
Watson and Curry are both rounded as well as energetic. Although the latter faded slightly on Wednesday in his first game since the Premiership semi-final against Exeter Chiefs on June 19, that much was obvious.
Here, in the opening minutes against the Sharks, Lions fly-half Owen Farrell is caught in a ruck. Curry backs into position and calls for the ball:
He plays a deft pass to Mako Vunipola from first-receiver and follows up to secure the breakdown:
Watson Curry 1
This touch comes either side of Luke Cowan-Dickie and Vunipola in the middle of a three-man forward pod. Beyond them are Navidi and Iain Henderson in a two-man pod:
Thus far, the Lions have attacked with their forwards spread in a 3-3-2 formation. In this case, Henderson steps up at first-receiver on the next phase a fires a cut-out pass across Navidi to Louis Rees-Zammit:
Curry is comfortable in both a central three and a two on the edge. Later, he lifts Henderson at this lineout:
Two phases afterwards, following a carry from Sam Simmonds, the Lions swing back to the near touchline. Curry receives Elliot Daly’s pass and sucks in two defenders before flipping an offload to Cowan-Dickie:
Watson Curry 2
Now is a good time to address the lineout, which would require a degree of compromise if Gatland has Watson and Curry on the pitch at the same time – even if South Africa lock stocks have been affected by unavailability.
Curry has improved markedly as a lineout forward for England. He is capable of jumping, lifting and standing at scrum-half to distribute or steer mauls.
On Wednesday night, the England international was part of the Lions set piece for five-, six- and seven-man lineouts. Meanwhile, it was Navidi rather than Curry that assumed the scrum-half role Watson was in for the Lions against the Sigma Lions. It stands to reason, then, that both Curry and Watson could be accommodated within the same lineout strategy.
In this instance, Henderson steps past Curry…
…who lifts him…
…before Navidi establishes the drive:
In the second half, the Lions reprised a play from their win over Japan with Price and blindside wing Rees-Zammit at the front. Curry was behind them, with Navidi again at scrum-half:
Faletau is another resourceful operator. From lineouts against Sigma Lions last Saturday, he carried in midfield:
And he is also a skilful jumper. In this case, the Lions have an imposing quartet of Jonny Hill, Itoje, Lawes and Faletau on the field. Watson is at scrum-half. Again, you can see Price and the blindside wing, in this case Josh Adams, at the front:
Lifted by Hill and Lawes, Faletau gathers Jamie George’s throw:
Curry’s ability to dovetail with teammates in the loose is another major strength. As lock Adam Beard disrupts this Sharks mauls, Curry and Cowan-Dickie are adding their weight to the counter-drive:
When the Sharks break away, Navidi and Duhan van der Merwe complete a tackle. Curry swoops for a jackal and Cowan-Dickie completes the turnover:
Watson Curry 3
Organised and tenacious kick-chase will be a big focus for the Lions. After half-time, Cowan-Dickie and Curry start in the middle of the field as Farrell clears:
Sharks full-back Manie Libbok steps inside Farrell, but towards a trio of Lions scavengers in Curry, Cowan-Dickie and Navidi:
Curry’s tap-tackle fells Libbok and both Navidi and Cowan-Dickie swoop:
Watson Curry 4
Referee Jaco Peyper awards the Lions a penalty, pointing at Cowan-Dickie to indicate that the hooker has lifted the ball and done enough to win the turnover:
It is easy to imagine Watson enjoying similar opportunities carved out by Curry’s hard work, and vice versa.
Stopping power on the gain-line, of course, is a prerequisite against South Africa. Curry spent some time against the Sharks monitoring the edge of the Lions’ defensive line:
This is a forceful tackle on Phendulani Buthelezi:
Watson Curry 5
When Watson arrived from the bench, he continued to defy those that voice misgivings about his size. At this breakdown, he is lined up opposite lock JJ van der Mescht, listed at 127kg (20st) on the Sharks website:
With the help of Ken Owens, Watson stops the carrier and strips the ball:
Watson Curry 6
Now, Faletau’s prowess in the wide channels has helped win Tests for the Lions. He lifts Lawes at this lineout four years ago and stays put, eventually finishing brilliantly:
Gatland would therefore have to be feeling confident in the ability of Watson and Curry to hold the middle. Watch Watson here. He begins between Faletau and Rory Sutherland…
…and sends the latter through a hole with a delicate pass after fixing two Sharks defenders:
Watson Curry 7
Whether spreading the ball out to the flanks or transferring the point of contact in tighter exchanges, distribution will be vital to the Lions’ bid to overturn South Africa.
Could others come into the reckoning?
Bar an irresistible surge from Jack Conan or Sam Simmonds, Faletau would appear in pole position to start the Tests for the Lions at the base of the scrum.
Curry could be an emergency number eight, having started there four times for England, but any potential combination with Watson would probably hinge on him shifting to blindside flanker.
Scrummaging may be concerning Gatland slightly. Regardless of how that area is fortified, though, few would argue if he manages to fit Henderson, Itoje, Beirne, Lawes, Watson, Curry and Faletau into his Test 23. Then again, there are late arrivals to consider.
Beard’s maul defence was strong against the Sharks and with both lock partners, Henderson and then Itoje, he scrummaged behind tighthead props Zander Fagerson and Tadhg Furlong.
This moment exemplified the value of Navidi’s toughness and skill around the tackle-area. Sharks locate Reniel Hugo at this lineout. Interestingly, Curry is the jumper to compete in the air:
After the Sharks hit midfield, and launch Thembelani Bholi, Navidi helps Farrell force a maul turnover:
Watson Curry 8
Nullifying the power of South Africa will be at the forefront of Gatland’s thinking. It is his job to decide which back-row combination has the capacity to achieve that.