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How England's 'Kamikaze Kids' Tom Curry and Sam Underhill were fast-tracked into World Cup heroics

 

Shining bright: Sam Underhill
Shining bright: Sam Underhill
Tim Curry

By Jonathan Bradley in Japan

Back when England thumped Ireland in the summer, it was a tough game to get much of a read on.

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Joe Schmidt's side couldn't possibly be that bad, we argued, while the added preparation time was surely a factor in the hosts looking so dominant at Twickenham.

And while what has happened since shows the gulf between the sides that Saturday in August was a more accurate barometer of how they were tracking than we could ever have imagined, there was a wider significance too - the first Test match started with Tim Curry and Sam Underhill in the same back-row.

It was then that Eddie Jones' 'Kamikaze Kids' were born. Having been bounced out of their own World Cup four years ago without a genuine No.7 - captain Chris Robshaw popularly dubbed more of a six-and-a-half role - England have marched their way to Saturday's final against South Africa with the two in their loose forward trio.

In a tactic used by Australia since 2015 with Michael Hooper and David Pocock, and adopted by the All Blacks in the run up to this tournament through to the quarter-finals, nobody has made the dual openside tactic work quite as well as Jones.

If Maro Itoje was the stand-out performer in the historic semi-final victory over the All Blacks on Saturday, Underhill embodied the striking physicality that will become the win's signature.

Take the minutes either side of New Zealand's sole try as an example. First, he lifted none other than All Black captain Kieran Read and drove him backwards. Then, when he did likewise to Jordie Barrett soon after, the replacement back lost the ball forward in contact and New Zealand were sapped of any momentum they were building.

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"You've got to be good at something, and I can't kick,'' deadpanned the Bath man. "Defence is always a good indicator of where a team is at mentally because the majority of it is just effort.

"It fills you with a lot of confidence and any team would pride itself on their defence. It's something you want to get energy out of, so you put energy in. It's not complicated."

Not as simple as he makes out but, having the time of his life here in Japan, he can be forgiven for not over-thinking the process.

Four years ago he was watching the World Cup in a students' union at Cardiff University and turning out for Bridgend Ravens. When Jones took over after that tournament, on the recommendation of 2003 World Cup winner Richard Hill, the Aussie met Underhill, who by then had been picked up by the Ospreys.

A move to Bath was soon in the pipeline, his England debut coming on the summer tour to Argentina in 2017. At just 23, he's one of the most important players in a side that have just reached a World Cup final.

"It's a bit surreal to be honest," he reflected. "I think it probably is for everyone. I don't think anyone would have been able to guess they'd be here. It's a massive privilege, a massive honour and I feel very lucky to be able to play and live with the group that we've got.

"I've loved every minute of it, the best experience of my life, never mind my rugby life. I don't know what else I could have done to top this."

It's remarkable that his partner in crime is even younger; Curry is just 21-years-old.

While Underhill watched the last World Cup in university, his fellow flanker couldn't even legally buy a pint.

Another who has long since been under the watchful eye of Hill, the Sale Shark has packed on an extra 5kg in order to aid his switch to the blindside but is no less of a nuisance at the breakdown with a six on his back.

He was still only 18 when he made his own Test debut on that same tour to Argentina, England's youngest starter in some 90 years.

At at time when many his age are still aspiring to make a club breakthrough, he already looks right at home on the biggest stage of all, man of the match in the quarter-final victory against Australia and prominent again against the All Blacks.

"When you pick tall lads like that (Scott Barrett of the All Blacks), there is an opportunity to work a bit lower," he said of his side's breakdown masterclass.

"It was a big focus for us, especially getting attacking momentum going against New Zealand. It all starts at the breakdown."

Just as it figures to in the final. As the Springboks have shown at this tournament, their game begins, and often ends, up front.

"You have to take the occasion in and not let it pass you by, but control is massive to our game and we have to make sure we deliver that again," Curry added. "We don't want to do a disservice to ourselves because of the occasion.

"You can get ahead of yourself but one of the great things about this team is that it is down to earth.

"You have to enjoy occasions like this because they don't come around that often but we are very good at focusing on the next task.

"The World Cup is such a fast-moving pace we have to shift our focus quickly onto South Africa."

No worry there. Curry and Underhill are two men who have had little problem doing things quickly.

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