Boil it up to the basics and modern rugby union is a simple game. Win the clashes and master the bad luck and nine times out of ten there will be a victory. England’s hopes for the series in Australia this weekend will rest entirely on those key areas and, in particular, whether they will be able to keep Wallabies captain Michael Hooper at bay.
The excellent Hooper rarely has a subpar game and was a key figure in The successful rearguard action of 14 men in Australia in Perth. If there was one moment that changed the complexion of the match, it was after 56 minutes, with a two-point lead over England, Hooper showed rare strength and timing to secure a one-handed turnover close to his own line.
Seven minutes later Jordan Petaia scored on the other side and momentum was solid with the Wallabies. With a bruised Tom Curry also leaving the fight at halftime, it was Australia who then stepped up the physical pressure with their rejuvenated maul and scrum, laying a platform for further scores from Folau Fainga’a and Pete Samu.
Hence the need for England to hit back hard and weaken Hooper’s influence if they are to save the series. Step up to Sam Underhill, who was not seen in Perth but is likely to play a key role on Saturday. The Bath winger has not had an easy season, missing all but one of his country’s Six Nations matches, but he is now available to support England in their last hour of need.
Underhill, 25, freely admits England need to be sharper and smarter around the outage: “In the end, fines cost us…whether it was more competitive than we thought, I don’t think we adapted to the interpretation at the time of the outage. The ref allowed a decent game and we didn’t adapt quickly enough. There were some pretty big moments on the back. The penalty under their posts was pretty crucial.”
As Hooper and the Wallabies also did a good job of slowing England’s ball, it meant the visitors never found top gear. “The disturbance is a pretty good area to target if you want to suppress an attack,” Underhill adds. “It’s always a huge battleground, especially against the test teams in the southern hemisphere and especially Australia, who are going for it pretty hard. If you do the division right, everything else becomes easier.”
Ironically, Hooper could have possibly played for England. His father, David, is from Kent and played for Blackheath before immigrating to Australia at the age of 24. However, with 119 Wallabies caps now under his belt, the rear rower shows little sign of slowing and Underhill knows that a tough task lies ahead. “Obviously he’s a big danger for collapse. You have to switch him early because he’s so good on the ball.”
Hooper’s lingering influence is all the more remarkable given the turnover in his specialist position, with Curry only being the latest victim. Underhill also suffered two concussions on either side of Christmas and believes the game is increasingly power hungry. “It’s always gotten more physical, especially at Test level, but you can see it in the Premiership too,” he says. “Obviously there are great athletes who move very well and at Test level you don’t have a lot of time to react. The collisions are generally bigger, so you have to be faster and better at them. It’s definitely, in my opinion, a more physical game than it’s ever been.”
Players on both sides are also well aware that a slightly misjudged tackle can lead to a game-changing card and Underhill believes more official empathy could help: is taken into account with mitigating factors. Many of those collisions are difficult to avoid. If a player has had a dip and struggled to get under the ball, that’s a mitigating factor for me.
“Take Billy Vunipola’s case over the weekend. He aimed the ball. He packed the ball and the only place for his shoulder is unfortunately someone’s head. Right now I think maybe it would be better if there was more understanding of what we’re trying to do. But overall, I think refereeing high tackles has improved the game. If you look at the game now compared to five years ago, I think the incidence of high tackles is significantly lower because they are monitored and dealt with.”
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