By Jack Tarrant
TOKYO (Reuters) – For a man who made his name winning many a bruising back row battle, it’s no surprise that former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio thinks that’s where Saturday’s Rugby World Cup semi-final match against New Zealand could be decided.
Dallaglio, who won the 2003 World Cup with England playing at number eight, believes New Zealand represents the biggest challenge yet for Eddie Jones’ side but that recent improvements in the back row could prove decisive.
England flankers Tom Curry and Sam Underhill have impressed so far in the tournament, with the former winning man of the match in the quarter-final victory over Australia.
However, they, along with England number eight Billy Vunipola, will have their work cut out against a vastly experienced New Zealand back row that includes captain Kieran Read and flanker Ardie Savea, a candidate for player of the tournament.
“I have been impressed with both back rows,” Dallaglio told Reuters on Tuesday.
“Let’s not forget Kieran Read is pretty tidy himself, quite handy and done a few things in rugby, and then Billy Vunipola is quite a special player.
“So it’s a wonderful battle within the war.”
As Dallaglio knows from England’s success in 2003, the whole forward pack has to work as one unit if they are to free up the flankers to work their magic as traditional number sevens, breakdown specialists adept at turning over the ball.
“The whole pack is a unit and if the front five, the tight five, go well then it allows the back row to play in a very different way,” said Dallaglio.
“It’s a really intriguing battle within the match itself and one that – obviously I am slightly biased – I am quite looking forward to and hard to pick a winner.”
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England have won all four of their matches so far at this World Cup, but as the pool stage match against France was cancelled due to Typhoon Hagibis and Argentina were reduced to 14 men early in their encounter, the team had a lot to prove heading into the quarter-final.
Dallaglio thinks England answered any questions “emphatically” with a 40-16 win over Australia, but more will be needed against reigning world champions New Zealand.
“Like Eddie (Jones) and probably like a lot of England fans I think hopefully the best is yet to come,” he said. “There is a lot more left in this England side.”
England managed its way through the pool stages without facing a really challenging encounter, he said, but stepped up well against what he described as a “good” Australian side.
“At times they played exceptionally well and they will take a lot of confidence from that,” Dallaglio said.
“They are certainly on-plan and they obviously now have to go up another level as well against the best side in the world.”
New Zealand, who have won 18 World Cup matches in a row, boast plenty of winning experience within their ranks, not least at head coach, with Steve Hansen aiming to become the first man to lead his team to back-to-back titles.
However, Dallaglio sees Jones as England’s possible trump card with the Australian aiming to reach his third World Cup final.
Jones was beaten by Dallaglio’s England as Australia’s head coach in the 2003 final, before becoming an advisor for South Africa during their 2007 World Cup win.
“This is Eddie Jones’ fourth World Cup as a coach or head coach,” said Dallaglio.
“This is his moment as a coach and he knows he has a team that are capable of going all the way to the final and winning it.”
(Reporting by Jack Tarrant; editing by Richard Pullin)