Sam Underhill said he was having the “best experience of my life, never mind rugby” as England booked their place in the World Cup final by dethroning reigning champions New Zealand.
The flanker, still only 23, was one of the heroes of England’s sensational 19-7 semi-final win in Yokohama on Saturday that ended the All Blacks’ quest for a third successive World Cup title as New Zealand suffered their first defeat at the tournament in 12 years.
This was just Underhill’s 14th Test but he was, nevertheless, a commanding figure at the breakdown and tackle, as well as starring in open play.
“You have to be good at something mate,” said Underhill, a star in the defence organised by John Mitchell, New Zealand’s head coach when an Australia side under now England boss Eddie Jones beat the All Blacks in a 2003 World Cup semi-final.
“I can’t kick,” the back-row added. “Defence is always a good indication of where a team is at mentally, because the majority of it was just effort.”
England will now face the winners of Sunday’s match between South Africa and Wales in next week’s final, with Underhill relishing the whole of his time in Japan.
“I’ve loved every minute it,” he said. “Best experience of my life, never mind rugby. It’s fair to say I don’t know what would top this.”
– ‘Big boys up front’ –
Meanwhile England try-scorer Manu Tuilagi acknowledged the work of Underhill and his fellow forwards by saluting the “big boys up front”.
There were fewer than two minutes on the clock when Tuilagi surged over from a close-range ruck to cap a brilliant team move.
But it was the pack who made sure England achieved just their eighth win in 42 Tests against New Zealand and a first since 2012, when Tuilagi scored another fine try in a 38-21 success at Twickenham.
“We had to come out and play,” said the powerhouse centre of a win that sent 2003 champions England into their fourth World Cup final.
“Fair play to our big boys they fronted up and did all the hard work for us.”
England led 10-0 at half-time after fly-half George Ford added to Tuilagi’s converted try by kicking the first of his four penalty goals.
But England had been 15-0 ahead before losing 16-15 to New Zealand at Twickenham in November last year.
“Against the All Blacks, it’s never done until the final whistle,” said Tuilagi.
“We knew that going into half-time our 10-point lead wasn’t enough.”
England’s determination was evident even before the kick-off when they confronted the All Blacks’ traditional pre-match Haka by forming an inverted V.
“We wanted to show that we’re ready, that we’re together and that we’re ready for anything,” said Samoa-born Tuilagi while acknowledging the “honour” of standing in front of the Haka.
“It was just something different. I think it came from Eddie. I don’t think it’s the reason we won but it was to show that we accept the challenge.”
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