Nobody expected Matt Proudfoot’s answer to a question about Tom Curry’s potential to include the magic word: McCaw.
But it did. The England forwards guru was describing the Curry he coached against and the Curry he encountered after moving hemispheres last year (of course, the English RFU head hunted the man in charge of the Springboks pack that broke them to pieces in Tokyo).
“In 2018 when England toured South Africa, we highlighted him as one of the main threats,” said Proudfoot. “We actually tried to get to him a little bit and tried to pressurise him. He was man of the match. He was 19 or 20 at that stage.” Curry turned 20 during the series.
“That speaks volumes for his character. Having worked with him and met him, it’s astounding me how he has an appetite to improve. He’s developing great leadership capabilities and he’s an unbelievable team man. That bodes well for his future and he’ll be a big part of the pack going forward.”
“Some players go through cycles where they improve and then that’s where they get to. If you look at the way Tom has improved over the last three or four years, he just continues that growth. In three or four years time he could be another McCaw type of player.”
Curry was sensational during England's march to the 2019 Rugby World Cup final. An openside flanker by trade, he remoulded himself at blindside to allow Sam Underhill evolve into a near unstoppable poacher.
Then, in what initially seemed like an Eddie Jones whim, Curry became a number eight. In his first match, a chastising defeat in Paris last year, he struggled at the scrum, but now he has a handle on all three specialist positions.
Injury to Underhill and Billy Vunipola’s return to form has Curry in the worst possible position for Ireland to cope with him today. Openside is arguably where he belongs but once he is on the field it doesn’t really matter.
"Tom watches videos of McCaw and George Smith who have been the foremost exponents of number seven play in the last 20 years," said Jones. "He's carrying the ball more than he used to. He was very much a pattern player, he fitted into a pattern of a team and we're encouraging him to be more of a positional player, playing to the ball rather than away from the ball, which is generally the case for a pattern player."
Lawrence Dallaglio is already sold. The legendary England backrow rarely hands over garlands to those who follow in his footsteps but Curry's destructive rucking in the victory over France prompted the 2003 World Cup winner to name check the Sale Shark on The Ruck podcast.
"I was drawn to the performance of Tom Curry, " said Dallaglio. "He was right back up there. We talked about him being one of the best backrow forwards in the world and in the World Cup knockout stages he was immense.
“He produced a wonderful performance on Saturday, both sides of the ball. It was huge really. I was just so, so impressed. I keep looking at him and realising he is only 22 years of age. I didn’t even make my England debut until I was 22. This is a player who has the world at his feet really.”
It is almost impossible to follow the play and keep an eye on Curry. If Irish possession is slowed or sullied, if the ruck becomes a bout of mud wrestling, wait until the referee blows his whistle, and then wait some more for Ben Curry’s twin brother to reappear from the rubble blinking in the sunlight.
“He’s a massive part of [the England leadership group],” said England captain Owen Farrell. “He is a bundle of energy as you can see in his actions. You hear it in his voice as well throughout the game.
“He is someone that I massively follow. He is obviously an outstanding player, a world-class player. He’s got a good feel for the game, especially for someone who is constantly in it. He does not sit back and see what is happening too much but he still has a great feel for what is happening in the game. When he does speak, he usually speaks a lot of sense. He is growing constantly in every year.”
Jones deserves credit for selecting Curry at age 19. This is where the Richie McCaw comparisons can begin. On debut for England, the teenager won man of the match at Twickenham against the Barbarians in 2017. On debut for New Zealand, McCaw (20) won man of the match at Lansdowne road against Ireland in 2001.
McCaw, after 32 caps, had lost a world cup semi-final and featured prominently in a Lions test series with 28 victories and just four defeats. Curry, after 32 caps, has played in a world cup final and is guaranteed to feature for the Lions this summer after 24 wins, a draw and seven losses.
Curry’s England career to date shows a win ratio of 77 per cent. McCaw retired with 148 caps and an insane winning return of 89 per cent.
"Tom broke his hand a couple of years ago and in the three months out he got absolutely huge," Sharks teammate Josh Beaumont told Rugbypass. "That's how you can tell him apart from Ben. His physicality increased because of that but there is very little difference. I am sure if Ben got the opportunity he could step up and do a job on the international stage."
Nobody outside England wants to see a Curry clone in the England backrow. It would be like having McCaw and Smith in the same team. Then again, Curry and Underhill - nicknamed the ‘kamikaze twins’ - wiping the Ireland backrow off the Twickenham turf last year showcased all the damage an English supporter could desire.
“He doesn’t know and I don’t know how good he can be - but we intend to find out,” added Jones. “His body is still filling out. But he’s become a real leader within our team, he drives the physical standards, drives the standards of the breakdown and he’s only going to keep improving. It’s frightening to think what he’s going to be like by the World Cup.”