TOKYO (Reuters) - Matching South Africa’s physicality has been the byword for the England squad this week but flanker Sam Underhill says they will have to pick their moments to engage in order to prevent the Rugby World Cup final turning into a war of attrition.
The way South Africa have approached most of their recent games follows a familiar pattern — a huge pack creating a safe space for scrumhalf Faf de Klerk to slowly deliver endless up-and-unders for his team mates to chase.
Trying to counter-ruck to put the scrumhalf under pressure is a tactic England will use, though probably sparingly.
“I think decision-making is the most important thing around the breakdown,” Underhill told a news conference a little over 24 hours before Saturday’s final.
“That is probably the majority of the work we do as a back row, around the breakdown you can’t go after everything. It’s all very well being aggressive but the key is to have control of that.
“Picking your moments, that’s a big focus for us.”
Underhill, his fellow flanker Tom Curry and lock Maro Itoje have been England’s chief turnover weapons, bringing a speed and athleticism to the breakdown markedly absence in previous years.
But the sheer size of the Springbok side, not to mention their 6-2 forwards/back split on the bench that ensures the big men keep on coming, means that shifting them is no easy task.
“They are a pretty big side, all over the pack,” Underhill said. “They have guys who get over the ball as we saw against Wales, they counter-rucked pretty well.
“Physically it’s important we turn up and take that part of the game away from them.”
Wales, for all their ambition to try to get the ball wide in the semi-final against the Springboks, could not avoid being dragged into what both coaches subsequently described as an arm wrestle.
Underhill said England were well aware of that risk but would be backing themselves to reproduce the speed of ball that kept New Zealand scrambling throughout their semi-final win.
“It’s important in our attack to have speed of ball, and that’s what the opposition don’t want,” he said.
“For any attack to function well you need good speed of ball. In defence there’s not much you can do for what they bring at you, apart from turn up physically.
“That’s going to be a theme going into tomorrow, a lot of what’s underpinning a lot of aspects of the game is physicality. Get that right and hopefully we will be able to dictate the game.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford