Sam Underhill helps England find a way to pass Welsh examination

England’s No 7 showed flair with the ball in hand as Eddie Jones’s men mixed brawn and skill to overcome Wales

England’s Sam Underhill carries the ball at Parc y Scarlets during his man-of-the-match display against Wales.
England’s Sam Underhill carries the ball at Parc y Scarlets during his man-of-the-match display against Wales. Photograph: Matt Impey/REX/Shutterstock
England’s Sam Underhill carries the ball at Parc y Scarlets during his man-of-the-match display against Wales. Photograph: Matt Impey/REX/Shutterstock
Andy Bull
at Parc y Scarlets
Sun 29 Nov 2020 03.00 EST

By day Parc y Scarlets doesn’t look much. And on an endless stretch of a dull grey day like Saturday, it looks even less, an empty, unprepossessing stadium tucked around the back of a deserted shopping centre, surrounded by baleful roundabouts.

It felt a strange situation for a game like this and right up to kick-off everything about the occasion felt a little underwhelming. A lot of the Test rugby we have seen this autumn has been. Even those famous Welsh songs don’t sound half so rousing when they are being played over a public address to empty grandstands. And then the game started.

Suddenly, it didn’t really matter there was no one watching, or that this Autumn Nations Cup is a needs-must tournament cobbled together to help keep the game’s coffers full. England were playing Wales and the rivalry between these teams is so old and so fierce it wouldn’t have made much difference to the ferocity of the contest if they had been playing in the supermarket car park over the way. Let alone in a town Eddie Jones described as “the heart and soul” of Welsh rugby, a place England had not played in for more than 130 years.

In an odd way the silence in the stands accentuated how intense it was out on the pitch, because you could clearly hear all the players’ shouts and cries and curses. And eavesdropping on all that, it felt very clear that there was an edge to it. There were men on both sides who, for these 80 minutes at least, really did want to stick it to the ones they were playing against.

England’s Jack Willis powers through a tackle in a physical encounter in Llanelli.
England’s Jack Willis powers through a tackle in a physical encounter in Llanelli. Photograph: Robbie Stephenson/INPHO/REX/Shutterstock

There was a brutal severity to it all. The first few tackles told you everything you needed to know about Wales’s motivation and it was obvious that whatever England’s way ahead in the game was, it wasn’t going to be their usual route of bulling straight on through the team in front of them.

Wales were a match for them in the collisions and because England’s ball-carriers were being hammered backwards so the smack and crack of flesh and bone echoed around the ground. England have been bullying teams all autumn, they dominated Italy, Georgia and even Ireland. But now they were up against a side who were not going to let them do it.

It was a flashback to the last time England faced a team they couldn’t lean on, in the World Cup final against South Africa, one year and half a lifetime ago. Wales have changed coaches since and lost six of the eight Tests they had played but they still have the team who fought their way to the semi-finals of that tournament, and they had more than enough about them to put England under heavy pressure, especially after they snatched that opening try by Johnny Williams. If they had had the rub of a couple of questionable refereeing decisions, too, it could have been a very different game.

For England, the pressing question was whether they could find another way to play. And they looked better, and more threatening, when they worked the ball wide, passing flat and fast along the line, switching play each way till they had stretched the home defence.

You could feel Wales get a little frantic and desperate when England’s backs started their scalpel work out around the fringes, probing openings.

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Their first try came that way, although only after Sam Underhill had torn a hole in the midfield and Kyle Sinckler had been brought down just short of the line. Underhill had a great match and showed he could do more with the ball in hand than we have seen from him previously.

But rather than open up in the second half, England redoubled their front-on approach. More power. Jones had come prepared for an “arm wrestle” as he called it and had stacked the bench with six forwards. It started to show. England’s second score was a bit of brute force, as the Welsh finally started to flag.

Jones spoke afterwards about how his team have not been able to kick on as much as he would have liked these last few weeks. He wants them to develop a more balanced game, marry all that forward power with a bit more flow. They have not got there yet but this was a real test, their hardest yet this autumn, and they came through it.

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