It is a decent quiz question. Which player involved in Saturday’s Wales v England game was man of the match on his Ospreys starting debut against Munster in 2015? The answer is Sam Underhill, the England flanker who played Welsh regional rugby as a student at Cardiff University before recrossing the Severn Bridge to claim a place in Eddie Jones’s back row.
Five years on and, in many ways, Underhill perfectly sums up this developing English team: seriously committed, world class without the ball yet not entirely what people may casually assume. This week, for example, while his teammates battle away on PlayStation, the 24-year-old is reading a book about the importance of breathing. “It’s kind of like meditation, but without the gap year,” he says, smiling. “Actually it’s probably more biology than spiritual. I find that easier to get into.”
Already it is difficult to reconcile the calm, polite, bookish Underhill with the whirlwind hurtling around in the white No 7 jersey with scant regard for his own safety. Even before last Saturday’s extraordinary defensive effort against Ireland, he and Tom Curry have transformed how opponents regard England’s back row. Nor will Welsh supporters have forgotten the remarkable corner-flagging tackle that denied Scott Williams at Twickenham two years ago.
Ask him why such a clearly intelligent individual has picked a profession which effectively requires him to dive headlong at human brick walls every week and his reply – “It’s a fair question” – acknowledges the potential inconsistency. There are echoes of The Queen’s Gambit, the Netflix show which many of England’s squad have been watching, when the chess prodigy, Beth Harmon, is reminded of the warning given to her by Mr Shaibel, her first teacher: “People like you have a hard time. Two sides of the same coin. You’ve got your gift and you’ve got what it costs.”
Underhill, though, is not an entirely passive prisoner of his brutal trade. While he completely rejects the theory he is tougher than those in other positions, his love of smashing people is genuine and has long been his hallmark. “It’s a key part of the game now, you can’t get away from it. There’s no way of defending that is not physical.” Which helps explain why he and England are enjoying Jones’s relentless desire for his players to work ever harder. “That intensity, and how hard we want to play the game, is rewarding. That’s probably the biggest motivating factor. We know that the harder you work the more gratification you get, whether it be in training or the game.”
In Underhill’s case, he also hails from a family of high achievers for whom fitness has always been a priority. His parents, Greg and Olivia, met at RAF officer training, his father was awarded an OBE four years ago, one of his three sisters moved to New York to work for JP Morgan and another is in medicine. Do they ever sit around the table and discuss who has the harder job? “They’ve all got tough jobs but my younger sister’s a doctor. No doubt it’s rewarding and incredibly important but they have it pretty tough sometimes.” How competitive are the siblings these days? “My sisters are runners but when I try and go on a run with them it never works. Anything past a mile and they’re gone. It’s chalk and cheese, isn’t it?’
While his dad also used to encourage him to push himself athletically – “He’d go on the bike or run with me … growing up in an active family has probably benefited me” – rugby was not a serious part of his life until he was 14 or 15. In hindsight he wishes he had played in a few other positions and honed his passing skills slightly more but given he was “a skinny, lanky thing until I was 16 or 17” and had size 12 feet at the age of 15, he was always likely to be a forward. At Sir Thomas Rich’s school, a selective grammar in Gloucester, his Welsh coaches Rhys Williams and Rhys Davies helped to hone his enthusiasm for the game but it was a school tour to New Zealand that opened his eyes. “It was incredible to see how fast the game was, how even the small kids were hitting pretty hard. It was very different to English rugby. We went to watch a senior schools game in Auckland, Saint Kentigern’s against someone. It was like watching a Premiership game: the size of the guys, the skill levels. If we’d played them we would have been trampled.”
Soon enough he was back home seeking to take the next step himself. He captained England Under-18s and was in Gloucester’s academy until the club expressed reservations about him combining his rugby with a degree. It was why he ended up in Wales, studying economics at Cardiff and playing for the Bridgend Ravens and then the Ospreys alongside Justin Tipuric and Dan Biggar, who used to enjoy to mimicking his English accent. “It was a very enjoyable experience and everyone was very friendly. I never got any personal banter because they couldn’t get past the English thing. It was quite a good shield in a way.”
He also played – and lost – at Parc y Scarlets and the Principality Stadium with the Ospreys and faced Shane Lewis-Hughes, among others, before Jones encouraged him to revert to the English Premiership. The former England flanker Richard Hill was a mentor even before he joined Bath but, having collected 20 caps and competed with the world’s best at the breakdown, Underhill is now eminently qualified to give his young opposite number, James Botham, a short, sharp lesson of his own. “The breakdown is probably more about speed than anything. Look at the Ireland game. There were three instances where we weren’t quite quick enough and each time we were punished. The margin for error is very small.”
In an ideal world, of course, Parc y Scarlets would be throbbing – “You miss the energy that the crowd brings” – but there seems little prospect of Underhill and friends being distracted from their wrecking-ball duties. As a kid he was enthralled by the 2009 Lions tour DVD and would “love” to tour South Africa next summer. If Wales want to bring England down to earth in Llanelli, they will have to get past the formidable former Osprey first.