It sounds like a plot line straight out of a science fiction novel. Imagine if you could clone a world-class player and end up with two athletes equally as fit, strong and potentially influential as each other. Now imagine the future is already here. No wonder Sale’s director of rugby, Alex Sanderson, sounds like a man who cannot quite believe his good fortune.
And why not? Exeter Chiefs tend to reserve their best for Premiership semi-finals at Sandy Park – played five, won five – but this time they will be confronted by a unique double Shark attack. Never before have the identical Curry twins, Tom and Ben, started such a high-profile domestic game in tandem; having already celebrated their 23rd birthdays with a family barbecue this week, a Twickenham final would be the ideal shared present.
The world may currently be more familiar with Tom, a summer Lion in waiting, but that could shortly change. Ben is within touching distance of featuring in England’s summer Test squad and even if the Sharks fail to reach a first Premiership final for 15 years, Sanderson believes a spicy Curry era is only just beginning. “They’re two of the best defensive players in the country, if not the world,” he says, flatly. “Who knows the mind of Eddie Jones but I think they’re good, I really do.”
Jones has already confirmed that, but for injury, Ben would have started ahead of Tom when the latter won his first cap in Argentina four years ago. Injury – most recently shoulder and hamstring trouble – has subsequently held the former back but Sanderson sees no reason why the duo cannot dovetail for club and country. “With great players they always speak about two things: nurture and nature. In Ben’s case nature is identical to Tom. So what’s the difference? It’s just the international environment Tom’s been in, the players he’s been around, the tuition he’s had.
“If Ben had those same things any scientist in the world would say he should be able to get to the same level. He’s turned 23 today and he’s getting better and better. What’s he going to be like at 26 or 27? Or at 30? He’s got years ahead of him. To have him on one side of the field and Tom on the other, which is what we want to do, means we’ve got a breakdown shark or apex predator in every other ruck. Last week the pair of them made about 40 defensive contributions; they topped the stats all over. Ben’s rated himself as a 7/10 right now. That’s exciting and I agree with him.”
Equally instructive is to hear Ben discussing the special on-field understanding the brothers have always had. “It’s hard to describe because it’s happened all our lives but there’s almost an instinctive communication. It feels very natural. You don’t really have to talk, it just kind of happens. I really enjoy playing with Tom and I presume he feels the same. It’s good to have someone else who thinks the same way so you can be a constant threat for the attacking team. At every breakdown they have to be on it.”
Sharing everything can be fun – for a previous birthday the club produced a single cake with white chocolate on one side and dark chocolate on the other – but, as Ben explains, the assumption that Tom’s rise to prominence has galvanised him even more is not entirely correct. “His success is his success and that’s great. I’m very happy for him but beating Tom is not my only motivation. I have my own goals that drive me. We definitely have that competitive edge but injury gives you a new perspective. Mentally I’m in such a more robust place than I was four or five years ago; had I been capped I don’t think I’d have benefited as much. All this has given me more motivation and drive and the grit and determination to keep on going.”
Also humming away in the background is Sale’s collective desire to become the super northern force they were back in the days of Jason Robinson, Charlie Hodgson et al. Sanderson, who took over in January, may preside over a substantial South African contingent – including his “magical unicorn” Faf de Klerk – but seeing how desperate his born-again squad are to win the title has brought out his inner northerner. “I am surprised at how emotional I am about it to be honest. I thought I was cool but I guess being northern that has pulled on my heartstrings.”
Curry also reports a different vibe from the less touchy-feely Steve Diamond regime. “It’s like when you’re building a house. You have all the bricks but you can’t just stack them on top of each other. There needs to be some cement. Nothing has really changed personnel-wise but what has changed is the intangible stuff. There’s a feeling of brotherhood: you can’t quite put your finger on it but you know something’s there. A sense of belonging. There are no stats to it but everyone’s loving it. You’ll see that this weekend … we will go to the ends of the earth for each other at the moment.”
Which is another reason, with either Bristol or Harlequins awaiting the winners, why Curry predicts a Sandy Park contest every bit as tight as last Saturday’s 20-19 thriller. In that event he sympathises with anyone sitting close to his father, David, a headteacher by day but a famously unrelaxed spectator. “He’s very emotionally involved in games. I find it hard watching with him … he gets so into it, I have to tell him to chill out.”
No one at Sale needs reminding, however, just how much semi-final victory in Devon would mean. “It would be a massive deal to win,” says Curry, acutely aware as a local Cheshire lad how much of a lift it would give to rugby union in the north-west.
Not finishing Exeter off last week also remains a source of motivation. “From what I hear – and I know this because my wife went down as one of about four or five Sale supporters – some of their injured players in their pre-match corporate were saying they were going to beat us by 30 points,” says Sanderson, tartly. “That’s what they believed. We knew we could go down there and get a win. Knowledge is power, isn’t it?” Neither side will be settling for second best, not least the Curry twins.