OITA, Japan (AP) — They are called “The Kamikaze Kids” by their coach, such is the disregard Tom Curry and Sam Underhill have for their own well-being.
The England flankers have little respect for reputations, either, judging by the lesson they handed out to two of the greatest loose forwards of the modern era at the Rugby World Cup.
Australia pair David Pocock and Michael Hooper — or “Pooper” as they are otherwise known — have been the barometers of back-row play for some time, notably at the 2015 World Cup.
But, four years on, they met their match in two players who grew up idolizing them.
England scored four tries and sparkled in attack in its 40-16 win over Australia in the quarterfinals in Oita on Saturday. That Curry was named man of the match, and Underhill cannot have been far behind, tells its own story.
They made 40 tackles between them. Both delivered momentum-shifting hits at key moments amid periods of Australian dominance. Underhill made a big turnover. Curry set up England’s crucial first try.
Hooper and Pocock were outplayed, the latter in what proved to be the final test match of his illustrious career.
“They are the players for many back-rowers coming through that you really look at analyzing,” Curry said after the match. “They set a real benchmark.”
Now the benchmark is being set by England’s young tyros.
Curry is just 21, the youngest forward ever to represent England at a World Cup, and has an identical twin in Ben. Both play at Sale Sharks, the top-flight rugby team in Manchester, yet their careers could have taken a different turn, with both earning trials at English soccer giant Manchester City when 13 years old.
Underhill is 23, injury-prone, and an amateur guitar player — a “campfire wannabe,” in his own words. Four years ago, and a student in Cardiff at the time, he was the only Englishman in a Welsh bar as Wales beat England at Twickenham to dump the World Cup host out of the tournament in the pool stage.
Now, “Slammin’ Sam” is one of the players leading England’s recovery as a rugby force.
One noticeable thing about their combination in the England team is that both are genuine No. 7s, hard-working scavengers very much in the Pocock mold.
Rewind to the 2015 World Cup and England played with two No. 6s in Chris Robshaw and James Haskell, something Eddie Jones — Japan coach back then and now in charge of England — believed held the English team back. They were sometimes described as “6½s” but didn’t have the marauding qualities of typical opensides.
Upon becoming England coach after that World Cup, Jones went about searching for No. 7s of the future with the help of age-grade coaches, with this World Cup in Japan very much in mind.
The result? “The Kamikaze Kids,” as Jones has labeled his young flankers.
Underhill made 20 tackles against Australia, the most destructive being the one that cut down Wallabies No. 8 Isi Naisarani at waist height midway through the first half as Australia looked to continue its bright start.
The flow of the game quickly changed, and with England now in good field position after an Australia knock-on, Curry sent over the pass that winger Jonny May took to score England’s go-ahead try.
Curry chopped down Australia winger Reece Hodge in center-field and then Naisarani near England’s tryline in two other stand-out moments at the Oita Stadium.
“You play rugby for the physicality,” Curry said. “When you get moments like that, it’s special.”
Underhill felt sad, in one way, that he’d sent Pocock into retirement, saying he was “a guy you want to be and play like.”
“It was a bit surreal coming up against him,” Underhill said. “Tom and myself were talking about it, he’s been such a brilliant player.”
So, now the “Pooper” era is over, is it the time of “Cunderhill” or “Undercurry”, Curry was asked.
“Cut that straight in the bud, that is not happening,” he said. “They are terrible names. Horrible!”
However they are labeled, Curry and Underhill might be dominating the thoughts of New Zealand, England’s opponent in the semifinals in Yokohama on Saturday.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80