The way Tom Curry tells it, it was not a long conversation. Eddie Jones told Curry he wanted him to play at No 8, Curry said “brilliant” and that was about it. “That’s how it went. But I would have said the same thing if he’d told me to play on the wing.” Curry is so good and has achieved so much so young, it is easy to forget he is only 21. At that age, when the coach says jump, you do not stop to ask how high. Which is how the best flanker in England, a man whose play in that position won him a place on the shortlist for World Rugby’s player of the year award, has ended up spending this Six Nations in a different, and unfamiliar, role.
For the Wales game Jones had the chance to swap Curry back to the flank, because his Sale teammate Mark Wilson is fit again. Wilson played No 8 for England in the autumn of 2018, and could have done it again easily enough now. But no. Jones says he is “very happy” with how Curry has been going. So Wilson is on the flank instead. Besides, “the game’s changed,” Jones says. “The roles of 6, 7, 8, they’re changeable.” Maybe. But it feels as if switching Curry has cost England a brilliant flanker for the sake of a competent No 8. Curry is good enough to get away with it, but just because you can eat peas with a knife does not mean you should confuse it for your spoon.
The “changeability” Jones mentioned means Curry and Wilson will take their roles as they find them. “There’s no ‘I’m going to do seven and a half and you do eight,’” Curry says. “You can’t put a percentage on who is going to be doing what.” Instead he says they will both just look to “play our normal game, I think that’s when we’re both at our best”. This weekend they are going to face a very particular challenge, since Wales have dropped Taulupe Faletau and are starting with Josh Navidi instead. Given that Justin Tipuric is alongside him, the contest at the breakdown is going to be fierce. “That’s the obvious point,” Curry says. “Navidi is good over the ball, and obviously Tipuric is as well.”
Jones has been refusing to talk about anything beyond England’s next game all winter, but these selections seem to be designed with the long-term in mind. England need to develop back-up for Billy Vunipola, who has missed 23 of their past 53 Tests. Jones has tried Nathan Hughes as a like-for-like replacement. Now he has decided that there is no point trying to replace someone who is irreplaceable, so he is hoping Curry will offer a different way of doing it. The comparison Jones makes is with Rodney So’oialo, who switched from the flank to No 8 for the All Blacks in the early 2000s. But then Jones said the same thing about Jack Clifford, when he was trying to groom him for No 8 in 2016.
As for Curry, he is just cracking on. “There’s a danger sometimes people start overthinking what the role of a No 8 is,” he says. “Apart from picking up the ball at the base of the scrum, and maybe being in the backfield a bit more I don’t think a lot has changed. Naturally you might find yourself in different positions but I’m not going to adapt my behaviour just because I’ve got a different number on my back.” He has been talking to John Mitchell, who worked with So’oialo, and Jones about what they expect from him in his new role. “It’s just little bits here and there, fine details.
“Like if the No 9 is going to pass, turning your back so you help him out with the pass, that’s what I mean, it’s just the tiniest things.” Small stuff to learn but Test rugby is a hard place to learn it. Still, if Jones is right then, at the end of it all, England will have another option next time Vunipola goes down injured. More importantly, from Curry’s point of view, he thinks he will end up a better player for the experience. “I’ve learned some brilliant skills, and I definitely want to carry on with that. As a player I want to keep getting better and I want to keep learning about different positional traits and skills.”
Curry compares it to learning about lineout jumping while he was playing on the blindside flank: “Going from No 6 I’m still lineout jumping, just now I’m No 8 probably not as much, but I’m still practising it. So yes, I’ll carry on with the skills.” With that attitude there is no doubt that in the years ahead, he is going to be a hell of a player, whichever position he ends up in. Especially if he lives by this rule: “I want to stay true to myself, I think that’s when I play at my best.”