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'Slammin' Sam' leads England's destruction of All Blacks

YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) — It was a statement tackle, the kind of crunching hit that leaves spectators gasping and gives teammates energy. That it took down New Zealand's leader made it all the more significant.

Sam Underhill was crouched and lying in wait on England's 22-meter line when Kieran Read, the All Blacks captain, received the ball and charged forward. Read met the full force of Underhill, the tackle slamming him around the waist and sending him backward.

There was more to come from Underhill. Minutes later, and by this stage he was starting to cramp up, Underhill chased a long kick forward but was behind three other England players. New Zealand replacement Jordie Barrett collected the ball, managed to get around Henry Slade, but ran straight into Underhill, who lifted his opponent, carried him forward and dumped him to the ground, forcing the ball loose.

"You have to be good at something, mate," Underhill said. "I mean, I can't kick!" Being England's go-to tackler will do just fine. Underhill — one of a pair of young, dynamic flankers who head coach Eddie Jones has labeled the "Kamikaze Kids" — was at his marauding best in England's 19-7 win over the All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup semifinals on Saturday.

On an evening when England outmuscled New Zealand with one big tackle after another, it was Underhill who delivered the biggest. "Slammin' Sam" made 14 tackles in all, to go with the 20 he made in the quarterfinal win over Australia.

"Defense is always a good indication of where a team is at mentally, because the majority of it is just effort," Underhill said. "When it comes to your kick-chase or whatever, we want to know we have guys either side of us who are working as hard as we are.

"It fills you with a lot of confidence. Any team prides themselves on their defense. It's something you want to get energy out of." Underhill is only 23 and his backrow partner, Tom Curry, is only 21. In the past week, they have demolished the famed "Pooper" pairing — Australia's Michael Hooper and David Pocock — and now outshone New Zealand backrowers Ardie Savea, Sam Cane and Scott Barrett.

"Loving every minute of it," Underhill said of the World Cup in Japan. "Best experience of my life, never mind rugby. It's fair to say I don't know what would top this." Born in Ohio in the United States but raised in Gloucester in England's "West Country," Underhill never thought he'd make it as a rugby player when he was at school. He still didn't after being offered an academy contract with English top-flight club Gloucester and watching first-team training for the first time.

So he went to university in Cardiff in 2014 and ended up climbing the ranks in Welsh rugby, with the Ospreys. Now he is back playing for English club Bath and might just be the standout flanker in world rugby at the moment.

He has a huge neck, broad shoulders and a massive work rate. In the biggest game of his life, and still a baby in test-match terms, Underhill managed to stay in control of his emotions, producing those big hits but doing so in a measured, legitimate way. And even after the disappointment of having a first-half try disallowed because of crossing by his pal Curry earlier in the movement.

"Surprisingly calm. Confident," Underhill said when asked if he could distil how he felt before kickoff as he took his place in England's V-formation to greet the haka. "I looked around and saw how the boys seemed. Everyone seemed in control.

"Obviously it's an emotional game and you are bound to go to a physical place for 80 minutes, but a massive part of that is the control and calmness. You can't get carried away, be overeager, or chase things, fix things on your own. We trusted each other."

Underhill was spending Saturday night in the company his mother, father and girlfriend, who were all in International Stadium to watch one of the great England performances. His father, Greg, works in the Royal Air Force. He has done two stints in Afghanistan and is described by his son as a "fitness freak."

Like father, like son. Now, just 80 minutes separate Underhill from rugby's biggest prize. "It's surreal, to be honest," he said. "I don't think anyone could have guessed we'd be here. It's a privilege and an honor."

More AP Rugby World Cup: https://www.apnews.com/RugbyWorldCup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

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