Ben Curry picked in revamped back row for Six Nations opener
Ben Curry is set to start at openside flanker against Scotland on Saturday as Steve Borthwick aims for mobility and breakdown disruption in his first match as England head coach.
Telegraph Sport understands that Curry, the 24-year-old twin brother of Tom, who is nursing a hamstring injury, will win a second cap after Jack Willis was one of seven players to be released ahead of this weekend’s Calcutta Cup clash.
Lewis Ludlam, impressive at Murrayfield a year ago, is set to start at blindside flanker with Ben Earl providing cover from the bench. The promotion of Ben Curry, who has featured in a single Test match, against the USA in 2021, is a reward for his consistency in the Premiership for Sale Sharks.
Elsewhere, Steve Borthwick has put his stamp on the tight five by dropping Jonny Hill with Dan Cole, the 35-year-old tighthead prop, retained in a squad of 29 and bound to end a three-and-a-half-year international exodus. Cole’s 95th and latest cap came in the 2019 World Cup final.
Ollie Hassell-Collins is in contention for a Test debut on the wing, with Anthony Watson kept on as well. As well as Hill and Willis, Bevan Rodd, Joe Heyes, Hill, Alex Mitchell, Guy Porter and Cadan Murley have been released
Kevin Sinfield, the England defence coach, said the departure of Willis, who was unable to train on Monday after playing for Toulouse against Montpellier on Sunday night, epitomised the back-row quality available to England.
“It has been such a close, tough call for us, we have some unbelievable players in that position,” Sinfield said. “Jack is going to be a huge part of us going forward and he has outstanding.
“Unfortunately, we have only had him for three sessions really and that has made it difficult with selection for him but he has shown us absolutely what a great player he is.”
Sinfield declared himself “delighted” with the backline England have settled upon for their Six Nations opener after testing a number of midfield combinations in training over the past week.
Though would not confirm that Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell would reprise their 10-12 partnership in the starting line-up on Saturday, he revealed that the team was announced internally on Monday.
Smith and captain Farrell, as well as uncapped fly-half Fin Smith, have been retained and intrigue remains over the make-up of England’s midfield. Manu Tuilagi, Joe Marchant and Ollie Lawrence will stay on. With both Elliot Daly and Henry Slade absent, and Dan Kelly withdrawing because of a thigh injury on Monday, each of them could conceivably start at outside centre beside an axis of Marcus Smith and Farrell if Borthwick decides against fielding Tuiagli at inside centre.
“I’ve been really impressed with all the different combinations we’ve run at 10 and 12,” Sinfield said. “I think the backline’s going to be really important in how we function. Some of the changes have been enforced due to injuries the last couple of weeks, but we’re delighted with the make-up of our midfield.”
“I have to say every player has impressed,” Sinfield explained. “That has been a real plus point and how difficult it can be for players to come into camp and they have been outstanding. We have run a lot of different combinations. We needed to understand best where we sit and who works well together and I have really enjoyed working with both of them [Marcus Smith and Farrell].
‘Sometimes the sum of the parts is greater than the whole’
“You guys are probably wondering what the combination is going to be but you will have to wait and see. But it has been a pleasure to work with Owen and Marcus and Fin. In terms of fly-halves we have got some real quality in this country and we should be proud of it, there are plenty more in the pipeline but they have been great.”
Sinfield said that England have attempted to “utilise every single second” over a short build-up and thanked Premiership clubs for cooperation in allowing them to retain so many players.
“Sometimes the sum of the parts is greater than the whole,” Sinfield added of the midfield. “In getting those right combinations, there are some players on our side who, for whatever reason, enable players to go from a 7 out of 10 to an 8 out of 10 just by being there and their influence. There’s a lot more that goes into selecting a side than just what you guys see. It’s what we feel and what we see 24-7. It’s not just what happens on the grass, that leadership element is really important.”
Hill started all four of England’s autumn Tests but departed Pennyhill Park on Tuesday afternoon. Ollie Chessum, Nick Isiekwe, Maro Itoje and David Ribbans are now contenders to cover lock. Sinfield was hopeful that both Slade and Courtney Lawes would be available to face Italy in round two and Jamie George appeared on course to pass concussion protocols in time for the Scotland game.
Cole, poised to dovetail with Kyle Sinckler at tighthead prop, was praised as a “quiet, calming influence”.
England squad (v Scotland, Twickenham, Saturday 4.45pm, ITV)
Forwards: O Chessum, D Cole, B Curry, A Dombrandt, T Dunn, B Earl, E Genge, J George, N Isiekwe, M Itoje, L Ludlam, D Ribbans, S Simmonds, K Sinckler, M Vunipola, J Walker.
Backs: O Farrell, T Freeman, O Hassell-Collins, O Lawrence, M Malins, J Marchant, F Smith, M Smith, F Steward, M Tuilagi, J van Poortvliet, A Watson, B Youngs.