TOKYO, 2 Nov – There was a moment early in the first half of England’s quarter-final victory over Australia that seemed to set the tone for the contest.
The 1.97m, 110kg Australian number eight Isi Naisarani received a restart and began a charge towards Sam Underhill, only to be hit square in the midriff, below. The force lifted him off his feet and slammed him down in a heap.
Such monster hits have helped 23-year-old Underhill, pictured top landing a tackle in the pool match against Tonga, to progress from a relative unknown at the start of the tournament, to one of world rugby's most feared tacklers. Over the course of 160 minutes, England tackled first Australia and then New Zealand into submission. Such staunch defensive displays kept some of the game’s most intimidating attackers at bay, and Underhill was at the heart of both of them.
England made 193 tackles against Australia, 20 of those by Underhill, more than any other player on the field. In the semi-final they hit New Zealand with 147 tackles and Underhill once again topped England's count with 16. Not bad for a relative novice to international rugby with 14 test caps and 10 starts to his name.
Just check out his tackle on the fleet-footed Jordie Barrett, the sheer power of the hit once again taking his opponent off his feet and forcing him to knock-on.
Those who have known Underhill since he began playing professional rugby as a teenager have not been surprised by the quality of his performances.
"Underhill looked the part even as a youngster," said former Wales international Martyn Williams.
"He wasn't in awe of anybody. I remember watching him when he was at the Ospreys. Physically, he was a specimen even back then, when he would only have been 19 or so."
Underhill has established a reputation as one of the toughest defenders in the game. He made 20 tackles on his international debut against Argentina in front of a hostile crowd in Santa Fe in June 2017 and showed a willingness to put his body on the line.
At Rugby World Cup 2019, Underhill has been a colossus at number seven for England, with Eddie Jones trusting him and Tom Curry even against the most experienced opposite pairings in the game.
Underhill has made 62 tackles so far, more than any other English or South African player. It is also the sixth most in the tournament, behind Wales’s Alun Wyn Jones (79).
Much of England's defensive strategy in this tournament has been focused around sucking opposition carriers towards their destructive tacklers. Another strong performance from Underhill against a highly physical Springboks side will be vital for England to have a chance of winning the World Cup for a second time on Saturday night.