Competition for places, Richard Hill and breakdown rules helped England develop flood of flankers

The days of England being at sixes and sevens over their back-row selection are gone — Eddie Jones now has flankers coming out of his ears all vying for caps.

While Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and Billy Vunipola are the established trio from the last World Cup, a new breed of thrusting talents has emerged, supplemented by big, older bashers. Suddenly England’s old position of weakness has become a mighty strength.

On Tuesday Wasps’ turnover king Jack Willis and New Zealand import Brad Shields face Ben Curry as Wasps play Sale, and Ben Earl will test himself against league leaders Exeter Chiefs for loan club Bristol. On Wednesday Underhill, Alex Dombrandt, Lewis Ludlam, Matt Kvesic, Zach Mercer and Ted Hill could all play.

Here Sportsmail analyses why this back-row boom has come. WILL KELLEHER and NIK SIMON talk to key figures from across the domestic game about athletic feats, smashing stereotypes, aspiring to heroes and the role of World Cup-winning legend turned national-team expert Richard Hill. 

Tom Curry is one of England's greats, but a new breed of talents could put him under pressure

Tom Curry is one of England’s greats, but a new breed of talents could put him under pressure


There have been a lot of good idols around: Richie McCaw, David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Francois Louw. It has not been hard to idolise someone and learn. In the England set-up, Richard Hill has helped immensely. Ben Earl, Jack Willis, me, my brother Tom and Ted Hill will have spoken to him.

He’s very knowledgeable about the game. Especially when you are developing, from 16 and 17 through to England Under 20 when you are coming into professional rugby, he’s very helpful. He’s very personal and good at talking to younger players — the ideal role model. A), he’s very knowledgeable and B), he’s just a very nice bloke.

I love the competition, otherwise it would be boring.

Ben Curry believes Richard Hill has been an invaluable mentor for back-row prospects

Ben Curry believes Richard Hill has been an invaluable mentor for back-row prospects


If you look at the Wasps back row from a few years ago, we had James Haskell, Ashley Johnson and Billy Vunipola. Size was king. They were all unbelievable players but the trends are different now.

Our back row is probably one-and-a-half-stone lighter per man now. We’re seeing an influx of traditional scavenging sevens coming through with the new breakdown interpretations.

He shouldn’t just be bracketed as a jackaller but Jack Willis is one of the best fetchers in the world right now. He’s hyper-mobile and spends a lot of time stretching.

He’s extremely strong in ridiculously uncomfortable positions. He can do the splits or put his legs behind his head! Not many players can do that. He’s also one of the hardest working players I’ve ever seen and he can hit like a rocket.


When I used to play I thought England got it wrong with the sort of back-rowers they were selecting. They used to pick Lawrence Dallaglio out of position at No 6 or 7 when New Zealand had proper sevens like Michael Jones and Josh Kronfeld.

England now have a wealth of options and are picking some great sevens — guys who are genuine breakdown players. There is good inspiration for the young kids too with Sam Underhill, the Curry brothers, Ben Earl. All of them understand the seven role and the back-row role.

It’s important to have a strong England team with good individuals in it, as it inspires the next group to come through. That is why New Zealand have a conveyor belt — while they’re getting coached well at school, club, academy and international level, they also have that inspiration.


The reason that there are lots of us around could be the way that the breakdown is refereed at the moment. A lot of teams are playing more of an open game, which suits the back-rowers — they can get their hands on the ball and the game is open for their work at the breakdown.

It can only be positive that there are so many back-rowers pushing each other on to perform. When you’ve got that competition you relish it. I speak to Sam Underhill quite a bit — we’re pushing each other, looking at how we can get better and it’s a positive thing for all of us.


The interpretation of the breakdown has changed significantly and it gives the 6ft 1in player an opportunity. I remember the day where all back rowers had to be 6ft 4in and the Neil Backs of the world were taken out of it.

There are probably more players of that stature and build. I’ve got three or four of them at Sale.

You don’t just pick somebody for England because they’re good on the floor, though. They’ve got to have other attributes.

The game is going that way where it gives players of that stature an opportunity to be prominent. Ben and Tom Curry are very similar. They’re good on the deck and good carriers.


There is a huge amount of quality across the Premiership and I’m sure we’ll see more come through. Sam Underhill is our stand-out England international and others here learn off him every day.

You go back a few years and they were looking at a short seven who could get over the ball, a six who is dominant in defence and wins lineouts, and a big, powerful No 8.

That’s not the case anymore. You’ve got pacey types like Ben Earl and Sam Simmonds to big Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes. The stereotype has been broken.

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