Eddie Jones had been in his job a matter of months when he called a meeting at the Rugby Football Union and announced “I can’t see any natural sevens in England”. He then asked all the age-grade coaches present to find him one.
It may go down as one of the more important meetings in his tenure, because a few weeks from the World Cup and for England’s penultimate warm-up game he pairs Tom Curry and Sam Underhill together for the first time. Back then he turned to “six-and-a-halves” but on Thursday Jones ushered in the era of the “Kamikaze Kids”.
Asked to elaborate on why Curry and Underhill have earned that nickname, Jones was typically pithy – “they hit everything that moves” – but equally he was referring to their long injury histories considering they are 21 and 23 respectively.
Jones named them to face Wales two weeks ago only for Underhill to pull up with a toe injury. Curry started and was outstanding for half an hour before picking up a shoulder injury. Unfortunately it goes with the territory and it was telling to hear Underhill’s response to Jones’s “kamikaze” quip.
“A healthy disregard for your own wellbeing is pretty essential if you are playing rugby in general, so I will take that as a compliment,” he said.
Nonetheless there is a frisson of excitement surrounding the selection of Curry and Underhill that comes with England potentially turning their age-old weakness into a strength but they are coming late to the party. Australia have been doing it for years, Wales and Ireland too, while New Zealand have this year followed suit.
Underhill is confident he and Curry will hit the ground running. “When we train against each other it is quite easy, because we compete all the time. I’m looking at him and I am thinking: ‘I am trying to beat him to stuff, get on the ball more than him’. He is probably thinking the same thing: ‘I want to beat you because I want the seven shirt.’ The key for the two of us is going to be maintaining that level of competition when we are on the same team.”
Exactly how long Jones has wanted to pair Curry and Underhill together is unclear but equally hypothetical, because he has so rarely had them both fit. Jones did suggest that refereeing interpretation of the breakdown – and a developing trend that means “the ability to poach has increased” – suddenly makes playing Curry and Underhill together a more attractive proposition. Wayne Barnes was at England’s Bagshot training base on Wednesday and you can bet the breakdown was an area of focus.
“There is a lot more contest in the breakdown,” Jones said. “The tackler is being allowed to stay in the tackle which means the ability to poach has increased. It is good news [for England] because the way the laws are being interpreted allows for a strong contest. We want to make sure we are well-cooked to play that sort of game.”
With Jones rekindling the 10-12 axis of George Ford and Owen Farrell for the first time in 14 months and handing first starts of this series to Manu Tuilagi, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Jonny May and Ben Youngs it is both close to his first-choice lineup and a starting sheet to quicken the pulse – all the more so because, Johnny Sexton’s absence notwithstanding, it is a formidable Ireland side coming to Twickenham.
Jones may have had to bide his time to field Curry and Underhill together but he has been waiting far longer to select Ford, Farrell and Tuilagi in his midfield, even if it has been seen in glimpses late in matches since the end of last autumn. It might have been against a demoralised Australia but the last 20 minutes of England’s thumping win over the Wallabies in November – in particular Farrell’s try, taking Ford’s pass with Tuilagi running a perfect decoy line – is a taster of what Ireland can expect on Saturday.
It may the case that both notable selections, the twin playmakers and the Kamikaze Kids, are currently slated as “plan B” options for Jones – Henry Slade and Mark Wilson would still hope to consider themselves first choice – but should England sign off from Twickenham with another healthy victory that may change.
“We started off [in 2016] with George and Owen at 12,” Jones said. “We looked at another way of playing and we know that can work for us, and we want another way.”