Rugby: A Rory trade in memories

Tim Glover counts the points and pounds as England's flying wing bales out
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The Independent Online
Five Years ago, Rory Underwood, on the eve of the England-Wales match at Twickenham, sold an exclusive story to a tabloid newspaper. One of the game's deadliest finishers made a minor financial killing by announcing that he was finished with international rugby.

Underwood was 28 and at the height of his career with Leicester and England, if not the RAF. He had played 55 times for his country, scoring 35 tries, and had helped the British Isles beat Australia in 1989. "It was," he said, "time to go." Underwood was awarded the MBE, appeared on This is Your Life and brought out his autobiography. The ink was barely dry on Flying Wing when Underwood made another announcement. His retirement had been premature. He returned to rewrite his England records to 85 caps and 49 tries.

Yesterday, Underwood made his final appearance in a Leicester jersey in what the marketing men called "Rory's Celebration" - a double-header at Welford Road in which a match between an international XV and a French XV was followed by Leicester against a British Isles Invitation XV. Things went far better off the field than on it for Underwood who limped off in the first half as the Tigers took a mauling. Still, in the best traditions of PR, he came back late in the game and scored a hat-trick of tries.

Underwood, who scored 134 tries in 236 appearances after joining Leicester in 1983, was awarded a benefit by the club. The fundraising has gone on for a year and he could be the wealthiest 34-year-old in the RAF. For retiring rugby professionals this was the pace-setter. "Rory's Celebration" (pounds 25 for a family ticket) was followed last night by "Rory's Disco" (pounds 5 a head) which was held at Leicester City's ground because Welford Road was not big enough.

The French players were enticed over by the offer of a weekend, golf included, at The Belfry. Rory's trade included merchandising and sponsorship and nearly 8,000 people paid to see the left wing's farewell. The last player to run on to the pitch, he was given a standing, not to say outstanding, ovation. Sentiment had played no part in prompting Underwood's departure from one of England's most successful clubs. Bob Dwyer, Leicester's Australian coach, dropped him last season and the signing of Fiji's Marika Vunibaka, 12 years his junior, signalled the end for him at Welford Road. "It's a great family club and I've enjoyed many happy memories," Underwood said. "I didn't really want to leave but the increased demands of professional rugby have made it difficulte to fulfil work, family and playing commitments. The time has come to move on."

And the word is that he will move on to Bedford where he could rejoin the former England coach Geoff Cooke. It was Cooke who was responsible for applying a turbo-charge to Underwood's career. Prior to his appointment, Underwood had scored four tries for England in more than 20 games; under Cooke he averaged a try a match. "I wish England had appointed him earlier," Underwood said.

Yesterday's celebration was organised by Sella Communication, owned by the great French centre Philippe Sella who captained the French XV to a 52-43 victory. "I have to emphasise," said Simon Gillham, Sella's partner, "that although he paid the players' expenses they charged us nothing in fees. They came for Rory."

Against a British Isles side managed by Fran Cotton, an inexperienced Leicester were given the runaround by the likes of Kenny Logan, Richard Wallace, Frano Botica and their own Austin Healey, one of Cotton's victorious Lions in South Africa. Leicester were further handicapped not only by the injury to Underwood but also the early departure of their most experienced forward, Dean Richards.

Every cloud contained a silver lining for Underwood bar one. A planned parachute drop by the Daredevils was cancelled at the last minute because of low cloud.