Making of ‘kamikaze kids’ Families reveal stories behind Underhill and Curry
Sam Underhill Football showed the way to time a perfect tackle
Flanker’s parents tell Daniel Schofield he only started rugby at 13 but soon built a reputation
Tracing the evolution of how Sam Underhill became the most destructive tackler in world rugby is like tugging on a thread of yarn. Just as you think it is about to finish, you discover that there is more.
To find its origins, you must delve beyond his days as a University of Cardiff fresher – where he watched the 2015 World Cup – and back to when he was playing for Sir Thomas Rich’s, a grammar school outside Gloucester, and Longlevens, a junior club.
At Longlevens, where he first started playing aged 13, Underhill was soon being withdrawn from matches at the opposition’s request. His reputation also started to proceed him at Thomas Rich’s. Their end-of-season highlights video features plenty of those same low, leg-driven tackles that drove All Blacks replacement Jordie Barrett back and down into the turf.
“We saw lots of those,” Rhys Williams, rugby coach at Sir Thomas Rich’s, said. “It is that combination of perfect timing and leg drive. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.” Even before he started playing rugby, Underhill was timing his tackles to perfection as a football full-back for Netherton Condors in Peterborough, then Churchdown Panthers in Gloucester.
His father Greg, despite being a rugby nut who only packed his boots away aged 52, told
The Daily Telegraph it was a deliberate decision to expose his son to another sport. The Underhills, it is clear, are not afraid of going against the grain. “I was never a huge fan of kids starting too early in mini-rugby,” Greg said. “I threw a rugby ball around with him so he got the ball-handling skills, but wanted him to play football because I thought that was a good sport to develop certain skills.
“He played full-back and he learnt to time his tackles effectively. The tackle technique is something he has worked on, but his timing is quite instinctive. I always knew he would end up playing rugby when he went to secondary school.”
Born in Dayton,
Ohio, where Greg was stationed with the RAF, Underhill has been blessed in many respects. He was exposed to some excellent coaching in his formative years from Williams, a former Wales No8, and Rhys Davies at Sir Thomas Rich’s, as well as Gerard Jenkins, Rob Griffiths and former Scotland prop Pete Jones at Longlevens. He was also briefly taken under the wing of Pete Buxton at Gloucester.
Even more importantly, he was born into a family who prized fitness and hard work. The day after Underhill delivered his tour de force performance against New Zealand, his sister Rachel ran the Stroud half marathon. She was the eighth fastest female in a time of 1hr 27 min 14 sec. “They all run and he has the same engine,” Olivia, his mother, said. Greg even converted his garage into a gym for Sam to work out in when he was younger.
Underhill placed just as much emphasis on studying, and gained four A-levels in English language and literature, maths and biology. All three of his sisters went to university and Underhill wanted to follow suit. Gloucester, however, would not allow him to divert his focus. So Underhill chose to walk away from his hometown club and enrol on an economics degree course at Cardiff. “We felt just relying upon rugby at that age, as your only profession, puts so much pressure on you,” Greg said. “By going to university, but still playing rugby, it gave him another dimension – if he was injured he could just be a student. We always hoped he would be a professional rugby player, but felt that it would be better if he had other skills.” It was a remarkably mature decision for a 19-yearold and one that proved the making of him. Initially he signed to play for Bridgend Ravens in the Welsh Premiership, but with the Ospreys missing several players at the 2015 World Cup, his break came earlier than expected. He was man of the match in his first start against Munster and barely looked back. During his second season in Wales, he received a text message from Eddie Jones asking to meet at the Hilton in Cardiff. The head coach delivered a characteristically blunt appraisal and told him that to be considered for national duty he must return to the Premiership.
Underhill moved back to the West Country with Bath in 2017. He also realised he hated economics, so started a new degree, in politics, at Bath. There is a long-standing £50 bet with one of his sisters on whether he will graduate. Studying has been pretty tricky of late, but in an interview with The Telegraph two years ago, Underhill made the case that all players should take further education.
“It should be compulsory for all players, whether that is a university course or learning a practical skill like plumbing, while they are playing,” Underhill said. “That’s important not only because the career is fairly finite, but in terms of developing as a person.”
All his sisters are high-achievers. “They are almost definitely the brains of the family,” Underhill said. “I was simultaneously spoiled and bullied.” All three are flying to Tokyo to watch their baby brother. Mother Olivia still cannot get over his or England’s performance in the semi-final, describing it simply as “surreal”.
Underhill remembers watching the last World Cup at a Cardiff freshers’ bar. To be playing in the final has taken a lot of guts and wonderful timing. Just like his tackling.
EDDIE JONES, YESTERDAY
Dynamic duo: Sam Underhill (left) and Tom Curry have been outstanding in England’s march to the World Cup final