Boil it down to its basics and modern rugby union is a simple game. Win the collisions and boss the breakdown and nine times out of 10 a victory will follow. England’s series hopes in Australia will rest squarely on those key areas this weekend and, specifically, whether they are able to keep the Wallabies’ captain, Michael Hooper, at arm’s length.
The outstanding Hooper seldom has a subpar game and was a key figure in Australia’s successful 14-man rearguard action in Perth. If there was a moment which altered the complexion of the match it came after 56 minutes when, with England ahead by two points, Hooper showed rare strength and timing to secure a one-handed turnover close to his own line.
Seven minutes later Jordan Petaia was scoring at the other end and the momentum was firmly with the Wallabies. With a concussed Tom Curry also having left the fray at half-time, it was Australia who then cranked up the physical pressure with their rejuvenated maul and scrum laying a platform for further scores by Folau Fainga’a and Pete Samu.
Hence the need for England to hit back hard and to dilute Hooper’s influence if they are to salvage the series. Step forward Sam Underhill, who did not feature in Perth but looks likely to have a key role on Saturday. The Bath flanker has not had an easy season, missing all but one of his country’s Six Nations games, but he is now available to bolster England in their latest hour of need.
The 25-year-old Underhill freely concedes England will need to be sharper and smarter around the breakdown: “Ultimately penalties cost us … whether it was more competitive than we thought, I don’t think we adapted to the interpretation at the breakdown. The ref allowed a decent contest and we didn’t adapt to that quickly enough. There were some pretty big moments on the back of that. The penalty under their posts was pretty pivotal.”
With Hooper and the Wallabies also doing a decent job of slowing England’s ball, it meant the visitors never found top gear. “The breakdown is a pretty good area to target if you want to stifle an attack,” Underhill adds. “It is always a massive area of contention, especially against the southern hemisphere Test sides and especially Australia who go pretty hard at it. If you get the breakdown right everything else becomes easier.”
Ironically, Hooper could conceivably have played for England. His father, David, hails from Kent and played for Blackheath before emigrating to Australia at the age of 24. With 119 Wallabies caps now to his name, however, the back-rower shows little sign of slowing up and Underhill knows a tough assignment awaits . “He is obviously a big breakdown threat. You have to shift him early because he is so good over the ball.”
Hooper’s continuing influence is all the more remarkable given the attrition rate in his specialist position, with Curry merely the latest casualty. Underhill also suffered two concussions on either side of Christmas and believes the game is growing ever more power-hungry. “It has always been getting more physical, especially at Test level, but you also notice it in the Premiership,” he says. “There are obviously big 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 on it. It is definitely, in my opinion, a more physical game than it has ever been.”
Players on both sides are also acutely aware that one slightly misjudged tackle can lead to a gamechanging card and Underhill believes more official empathy might help: “The only thing maybe I’d like to see would be mitigation factors being more considered. A lot of those collisions are hard to avoid. If a player has dipped and made an effort to get under the ball, for me that is a mitigating factor.
“Take Billy Vunipola’s case on the weekend. He has targeted the ball. He has wrapped the ball up and the only place for his shoulder to go, unfortunately, is someone’s head. At the moment I think maybe it would be better if there was a greater understanding of what we’re trying to do. But by and large I think the refereeing of high tackles has improved the game. If you watch the game now compared to five years ago I think the incidence of high tackles is significantly lower because they are getting checked and dealt with.”