James Haskell asks England to be ready for 'biggest physical challenge' against Springboks

Former flanker expects South Africa to be at another level of aggression in Rugby World Cup final

YOKOHAMA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 26:  Ben Youngs  of England celebrates with team mates after scoring a try, but was later disallowed during the Rugby World Cup 2019 Semi-Final match between England and New Zealand at International Stadium Yokohama on October 26, 2019 in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
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When someone who is preparing to be a professional MMA fighter says playing rugby against South Africa is the biggest physical challenge he has faced, it provides a clue to the task facing England on Saturday.

There is rarely much mystery about the tactics Springbok rugby teams employ. Rassie Erasmus, their coach, even said in the lead up to the Rugby World Cup final that England should expect more of the same from them when the take the field in Yokohama. Meaning, remorseless power and aggression.

James Haskell, the former England flanker, said playing against the Boks is different from any other challenge in rugby.

“It is about the style of rugby they play over there, the size of the guys, and the mentality they have,” Haskell said.

“They are very big, physical men, and they pride themselves on their aggression. They play in a very direct way. Other teams are physical, but playing the South Africans was by far and away the most physical challenge I ever had.”

England will likely be up for the fight, though, judging by the form showed by two of their youngest players in the tournament to date.

Back-row forwards Tom Curry, 21, and Sam Underhill, 23, have been among England’s most outstanding players in their run to the World Cup final.

If the final is to be “100 per cent down to the breakdown work, and the work of the forwards,” as Haskell believes it is, they will each have key roles to play.

“First of all, neither of them are outwardly aggressive guys,” said Haskell, who played 77 times for England and is now preparing to fight in Bellator MMA next year.

South Africa players take part in a training session in Urayasu, outside Tokyo, Japan, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019. The Springboks will play England in the Rugby World Cup final on Saturday Nov. 2. in Yokohama. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
South Africa players during a training session in Urayasu. AP

“Sam is a quiet guy, but he tackles like nobody else. He has an almost perfect tackle technique. Tom is so young, and he is has so much passion and excitement to be playing for England.

“They both run around like Duracell bunnies, and are both incredible at what they do.”

Haskell did, though, play down the idea England will benefit overly from Curry’s insider knowledge of Faf de Klerk, South Africa’s influential scrum half.

England have been so focused on the threat posed De Klerk that they reportedly employed a locally-based scrum-half wearing a blond wig in training this week.

Curry is a colleague of De Klerk’s at club side Sale Sharks, but Haskell doubts how much impact that will have on the game.

“One-on-one battles in a team sport are rare, and not that relevant,” said Haskell, who will be at the Sharjah International Book fair next week promoting his new book 'Cooking For Fitness'.

“It is about the team being prepared. Tom can’t run to every single breakdown to try and deal with him.

“He will have talked about the way he wants to play, and there will be some inside knowledge.

“He will know about how Faf likes to pick the ball up from the breakdown, and what he wants from his forward runners.

“I’m sure it will be beneficial, but we are talking about one per cent margins.”