From minute zero to minute 80, England were ruthlessly dominant over New Zealand in their World Cup semi-final and if one man encapsulated the vice-like grip England had on the All Blacks, it was openside flanker Sam Underhill.
As soon as England took to the pitch and confronted the haka with their own V-shaped formation, things just went from bad to worse for the reigning world champions. An action, it is likely, that England and the RFU will be fined for, though that won’t worry Eddie Jones and his charges at all.
It was not intended to be disrespectful and captain Owen Farrell was quick to point that out in the press conference after the game, insisting that they “wanted to keep a respectful distance but we didn’t want to just stand in a flat line and let them come at us”.
Whether teams should be allowed to challenge the haka or not is a whole other debate, though to insist teams stand there idly and watch it surely only detracts from the fact the haka is, in itself, a challenge. It also turns it into a spectacle or sideshow rather than the storied sporting tradition it has become and what it is supposed to represent.
Regardless, England’s flanking motion, whether intended or not, set the tone from the beginning. Their refusal to move when asked to by the officials was reminiscent of Martin Johnson’s side similar refusal in Ireland all those years ago – thankfully without the political disrespect – and the advancing steps of Joe Marler and the mischievous smile on Farrell’s face were unerringly prophetic of what was to come.
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What ensued was, to be frank, the first genuinely 80-minute performance of Jones’ tenure as England head coach and one of the few in international rugby over the last cycle. We have seen excellent performances under Jones for 50, 60 or even 70 minutes at a time, but to remain that focused and consistent for every minute of the match just doesn’t happen that regularly, no matter how good the team.
Against New Zealand, there was no relenting, there were no slow starts or sloppy finishes. The one moment when things went wrong for England, the lineout that was missed which Ardie Savea happily snared before powering over the try line, was really the only loss of control England had in the game.
They were guilty of a little profligacy in attack but given the fast start they made and the foot they put on New Zealand’s throat early, those two or three potentially missed tries were irrelevant. How often can you say that against the All Blacks?
It was undoubtedly the biggest win of Eddie Jones’ tenure as @EnglandRugby head coach
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 26, 2019
Underhill’s chalked off try was fair enough. Tom Curry had overrun his line and it was a clear case of crossing that allowed Kyle Sinckler to take the space and then feed Underhill through the gap in New Zealand’s defence. The Jonny May break from the Manu Tuilagi interception was another that could have ended in glory on another day. Fresh back from a hamstring injury, something which seemed to sideline him early in the second half, May’s top-end pace didn’t look to be quite there.
Then there was Ben Youngs’ disallowed score. It was a quickly-made decision by the TMO and one that, after a number of viewings, still baffled. The ball was bobbled in the maul by Jamie George and then seemingly recovered by the hooker before it touched the ground. It was ruled out for a forward pass but, if there was one, it was extremely hard to see.
Having got themselves ahead early through a Tuilagi try that came off as precise and energetic a start as England could have hoped for, Underhill went to work on a New Zealand side that had no answer to him prospering at the breakdown. He was instrumental in delivering two turnovers but his impact there went beyond the base numbers. He was slowing down New Zealand’s ball at all possible opportunities and was one of the first to the contact area when England had possession, helping deliver quick and secure ball for Youngs to work with.
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Alongside Curry and Maro Itoje, in particular, Underhill and England dominated the battle on the floor, a contest which they do not have the best of histories in against New Zealand. His efforts prompted the introduction of Sam Cane at half time and as if sensing an evening of the odds, Underhill went to work in another area, the tackle.
The Bath flanker proceeded to make three of the most dominant, technically-precise tackles you are ever likely to see in international rugby. He stayed low, had his head placed perfectly to the side and drove up and through the New Zealand carriers, taking them off their feet and barrelling them backwards, without ever taking them beyond the horizontal. If you’re teaching young rugby players to ‘win collisions’, those are the videos you should show them.
Perhaps a symptom of the head injuries he picked up early in his professional career, injuries which left him sidelined for a significant period of time, Underhill was the perfect poster boy on Saturday for how tackling low is not only safer in terms of risk of concussion, it is every bit as effective in stopping opposition attacks. More stringent sanctions on high tackles are sanitising or diluting the physicality in rugby? Please, go and watch the game again.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 26, 2019
New Zealand, who usually have such success getting over the gain line, extending phases and evading tackles, just couldn’t get away from England’s stranglehold, with Underhill the spearhead of a defensive performance for the ages. His physicality was thrilling for the neutrals and he consistently sapped New Zealand of any momentum they may have been building.
The All Blacks’ 19 turnovers and 11 penalties conceded will linger with them well into the next cycle and the build-up to the 2023 World Cup. Additionally, for the second week in a row, the hire of John Mitchell as England’s defence coach has looked to be the finishing touch that the side needed to bring them to within 80 minutes of lifting their second-ever World Cup title.
As for Underhill, he is rapidly becoming a player that New Zealand will have the utmost respect for. He led the way in England’s 15-16 loss to the All Blacks at Twickenham last year and though he was on the wrong side of the result that day, he was the pick of England’s impressive effort.
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On Saturday, he went a step further and secured his first win against New Zealand. At just 23 years of age and bearing in mind the age profile of the rest of the England team, you wouldn’t bet against it being his last win over them either.
England will now look forward to enjoying a bit of downtime and watching Sunday’s clash between South Africa and Wales safe in the knowledge that if – and it is a considerable if – they can replicate that performance against New Zealand again next week, they will put themselves in a very good position to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy.
As appetising as an all-northern hemisphere final would be for England fans, and it would be the first time the World Cup would see one, the lure of a game against South Africa and potentially pursuing a clean sweep of the southern hemisphere’s “big three” in the knockout rounds could see this group even surpass the exploits of the vintage of 2003.
For now, though, pity the poor blokes who have to line-up opposite Underhill in training.
WATCH: Steve Hansen reflects on New Zealand’s loss to England
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