The young England flanker is brushing off the hype, says Alan Pearey
It’s difficult to say what is more impressive about sam underhill: the bone-bruising physicality that he brought to the Ospreys or the mature and measured way he conducted himself in a phone conversation with RW? certainly both aspects suggest he’s a young man with a giant future.
it’s a future that this month goes to another level as the 20-year-old visits Argentina as part of Eddie Jones’s England squad. underhill is one of 15 uncapped players but arguably only denny solomona’s inclusion has attracted as much interest.
it’s 15 months since Jones met underhill in a cardiff hotel and later declared he’d be in his squad within six months. the Rfu’s eligibility rule, that requires England players to play in the country, stopped that happening, but now this RAf officers’ son has signed for Bath and it’s chocks away and ready for take-off.
if he’s feeling any pressure he doesn’t show it. “it’s nice getting praise but it’s peripheral,” underhill says. “As a player you keep looking in, whether it’s a club or an international environment. You can only worry about what your team-mates or coaches think.
“Argentina have a huge pedigree and this will be a very tough tour. they can play loose rugby but have a structured game as well; they’ll be physical, quick and skilful and i’ll be going there with my eyes open.”
it would be understandable if some of the hype had put a swagger in his stride. dumping Jamie Roberts on his derrière in a Wales-Ospreys training session started the murmurs and out-hitting sean O’Brien in a champions cup tie raised their volume.
in next to no time he was heralded as the answer to England’s prayers at No 7, but he gives short shrift to such a notion. “People should chill out a bit about England’s back row,” he says with feeling. “there are tons of very good back-rows in the Premiership, a wealth of No 7s and eights and sixes. in terms of talent and potential England are a very lucky team.
“i haven’t really achieved anything yet. i’ve had a few decent games for the Ospreys but i’m far from the finished article. i’m only 20 and i hope i haven’t stopped developing. i hope i’ve got more to come.”
underhill was born in America but still a toddler when the family relocated to Peterborough. After moving on to Gloucestershire at 11, he became a county shot putter. A great uncle, Bernard capaldi, played for the Barbarians and his dad Greg was an oval-ball disciple, so soon sam was turning out for longlevens Rfc and his school, sir thomas Rich’s. “Rhys Williams (ex-Wales) is coach there and i owe him a lot. i still get the odd text from him but that may stop if i play for England!”
His dad is a fitness freak – “he’s 57 and still trying to out-bench me” – and the garage gym he installed at the family home helped sam pack a powerful punch into his 6ft 1in frame.
When the lions last assembled, he was touring New Zealand as a schoolboy with ‘tommies’. “it’s my favourite tour to date. You’d see a hamlet with three houses and there would be a set of rugby sticks up there! the people were so hospitable but on the pitch they’d try to take your head off.
“there aren’t many big Polynesians on the uK schools circuit and they ran over the top of us but round us as well. it’s a pity i lost my iPhone when cycling to the gym as it had all my photos on it.”
He was Man of the Match on his England u18 debut and loved the freedom of age-group rugby under John fletcher and Pete Walton. But he is effusive about so many people – from Jonny Wilkinson to Justin tipuric to his three older sisters – that you know he’s one of life’s optimists.
Bath, where he plans to resume an economics degree that he began at cardiff, will suit him. “their history and reputation speaks for itself,” says underhill, whose only Premiership action was in a Rec rout while at Gloucester. “they have awesome players and you need competition to bring out the best in you. there’s so much you can learn from players like francois louw and taulupe faletau.”
He cites tackle technique and body height as work-ons but adds: “You try to turn weaker aspects into strengths and strengths into super strengths. the breakdown is like another set-piece, so you want to speed up your ball and slow down opposition ball. it’s a simple game.”
Perhaps, more accurately, it’s a game that underhill makes look simple. don’t take your eyes off this young man.