Rugby Union: Farewell privilege, welcome normality

Tony Underwood gives thanks for the memories, but wonders if his successors will be so lucky
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The Independent Online
IT WAS Armistice Day on Thursday. A day to commemorate the millions of people who had lost their lives fighting in two world wars. It also just happened to be the day that I officially ended my career as a professional rugby player. But life goes on for me just as it does for all of us thanks to those brave people and this is something that I endeavoured never to lose sight of in my playing days. That through all the entrapments of being a "personality" I would never let it subsume my life such that I would allow myself to believe in my self-importance.

I am very much, I believe, a normal kind of bloke, who just happens to be blessed by God with a talent for playing rugby. But rugby is just one aspect of my life and I never allowed it to become my sole objective - which has quite often infuriated the odd coach or two. Don't get me wrong, I would always strive to do the best that I could and would never wish to let anyone down. But not to the detriment of the rest of my life. I need a balance and rugby alone cannot give you that.

Instead my goal was always to enjoy the opportunities that playing the sport at a high level gave me. The buzz from playing well, the bonding that comes with being a part of team sport and the friendships that come about because of that. Indeed the sense of family is something that I have been privileged to experience throughout. At Barnard Castle School, where my game first developed under the tutelage of John Oates, who also became a father figure when my father died in 1982. At Leicester, where the likes of Les Cusworth, the club secretary Tudor Thomas and the director Tony Power looked after a very homesick boy fresh out of school. At Cambridge, where the hugely influential Tony Rodgers allowed me to rebuild my confidence after my first knee injury. The ups and downs, but mostly ups, of my time with the inimitable Jack Rowell with England A and then the full England team. He used to call me his match-winner but you wouldn't believe how many times he dropped me. The 1997 Lions - enough said. And last, but not least, Newcastle Falcons.

Rob Andrew, Steve Bates and Dean Ryan had a clear idea of who they wanted to bring up to Newcastle in terms of ability obviously, but perhaps more importantly in terms of character. With these criteria they assembled a group of players to take the club from the bottom of the second division to bigger and better things.

It was real Boys' Own stuff and I bought into it from the start. Very quickly a bond developed between us and what followed in the next three years was probably the proudest achievement of my career. Winning the premiership was fantastic and doing it with the people involved made it doubly so.

Thankfully, a friendship that was formed when my rugby career was first taking off at the age of 11 is there when it has come to an end.

Rob Andrew and his family have known my family for all that time and just latterly our lives have come full circle to bring us back to the North-east of England to see out our playing careers. In between our paths have been broadly similar. Playing for Cambridge University, England and the Lions. I can never thank him enough for giving me the opportunity to come "home" to play out my rugby and for the helping hand he has extended throughout my time here on and off the pitch. I took the decision to train as a commercial pilot a year ago and since then I have had nothing but the fullest support in those aspirations.

I was obviously hoping to have completed my pilot training and at least played out my present contract of another two seasons but unfortunately my knees have had the last word on the matter. The last two years have been very difficult, playing with constant pain and with the obvious limitation that this imposes on my form. It got to a stage where I was given the option of having a cruciate reconstruction on my knee to help extend my career, but this offered no firm guarantees and would not lessen the real risk that I would continue to inflict even more damage on my knees.

Fortunately I have another realistic option, and sad though it is to close the book on my rugby career I am very excited about opening another rewarding and enjoyable chapter in the world of aviation.

Truth be told, retirement is something I have considered since last aggravating my knee in a Test match versus South Africa last December. Injuries have been a part of my life for a decade and this seemed like one too many.

Even so, no amount of thinking about it can actually prepare you for that moment of reality. You come over in a bit of a daze, as if nothing is real any more. Yet the ironic thing is that for the first time in a long time my life is about to return to normality. The real world beckons. The pampered lifestyle of a professional sportsman is no longer mine. Can I cope?

Thankfully, I have been lucky enough to have had a foot in both the amateur and the professional eras of the sport. In the amateur days I tried to combine the life of a stockbroker with that of an international rugby player.

That, I believe, leaves me in good stead, which cannot be said for some of my younger colleagues. I do worry for their future, especially in a sport which is quickly becoming foreshortened in its life span. Thirty may seem young to be retiring now, but in a few years I believe you will be lucky to reach it - such is the brutality with which the game is now being played.

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