Rugby Union: Underwood junior keeps on running

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The Independent Online
Another day of minding other people's businesses has passed for Tony Underwood in the glass tower of a merchant bank and he emerges into the forbidding marble foyer to discuss his own family's trade, which is going rather nicely, thank you. The firm of Underwood Bros (unlimited) specialises in running down a rugby pitch as if pursued by the devil's henchmen, and it could soon be cornering the market.

First Rory, now Tony. The England team who face Canada at Wembley on Saturday will be missing the white blur of the older Underwood hurtling along the touchline with that G-force expression of his, but in Tony, his brother and Leicester team-mate, the side's management may have found his short-term partner and long-term replacement. The trial begins.

Tony Underwood presents a slighter, gentler projection of his absurdly successful clan than Rory, but the cognoscenti tell you that he is a more promising wing now than his late-developing brother was at the same age (23). See the typical forward in his city- going, workaday clothes and he looks like King Kong tranquillised and stuffed into a suit, but Underwood, a non-drinking Cambridge graduate, merges effortlessly into the oppressive structures of London's Broadgate centre.

He wears round glasses, preppy loafers and a modest suit, so is the last inhabitant of this architectural playground you would define as a power-dresser. The imagination churns to establish some connection between this ambitious freshman in the world of accountancy and the rugby addict who is about to step into the gnashing, rib- thumping conflict of the international game. He would scorch a tunnel of air with his pace, he would dump a rampaging All Black to the ground with his improved upper body strength, and yet here is Tony Underwood, pressed into this soft leather sofa, emitting only reason and humility.

Reconciling the two Tony Underwoods is our problem, not his. After an unhappy tour of Argentina in 1990, Underwood has restated his claim to a regular England place by creating 'a sensation' (copyright: the New Zealand press) on the England B summer expedition.

His task at Wembley is to seize the vacancy on the right wing and so establish himself in time for the match against South Africa, not to mention England's attempt to win a third consecutive Grand Slam. If he does, he will be able to wave to his brother from the opposite side of the pitch, because the left wing's jersey is almost certain to be tossed back to Rory Underwood now that his retirement has turned out to be of the boxing variety.

So the headline is: Tony Underwood's overdue but still inevitable investiture. Well, not quite, because the inclusion of Ian Hunter (a full-back) on the other wing against Canada is a telling endorsement of that player's talents, and as Mike Slemen, the prime speedster in the 1980 Grand Slam-winning team, said yesterday: 'I wouldn't write off the other candidates. I could name five who'd be in contention.'

As Slemen is closely connected with the current England regime in his coaching role, that represents a scarcely concealed warning to the junior Underwood, though Slemen also said of him: 'I've got no doubt about his ability to play at this level. He has real pace, and pace in any position will get you noticed. Also, his tackling and contact skills have improved and his work- rate has gone up a lot.'

Talk of diversions and hold-ups on the road to Twickenham will not trouble Underwood as he rushes for the train to Leicester each Thursday evening ('After five years there I feel strong loyalty to them'). Heard it all before. Been injured. Failed once already, in Argentina. Even the old they-say-you're-better- than-Rory compliment will not shift him from an understated belief that this is his time. 'Yeah, they've been saying that for three years.'

Ever since the PE staff at the Underwoods' prep school found out Tony's surname and pushed him towards the wing in an effort to duplicate Rory's success, the younger of these two stocky but ultra-swift brothers has been treading a pre-navigated path. 'Two years after I started playing, Rory was already in the England team,' Tony said, and he is characteristically self-effacing in adding: 'In terms of advice it's definitely been one-way traffic. I don't think I could offer much to him.'

The curse of the kid brother, destined by the random outpourings of time to be judged according to what went before. And in this light, it occurs to you that Rory's roaring return was the last thing Tony needed because, as he admitted euphemistically, 'it narrowed the options'. But family loyalty holds firm, as does the preference for the positive over the negative that has got him this far. 'Luckily,' he said, 'for the last few seasons I've been playing on the right wing anyway, and that has given me the opportunity to fulfil the dream of playing not only for England but with Rory. I just hope I merit being rated the second best winger in the country after him.'

It is no frequent occurrence this brothers-in-arms thing. Though 24 sets have played for England, the last pair to appear in the same side were Harold and Arthur Wheatley in 1938. Do not, however, expect Tony to raise a glass if and when the coupling is achieved. 'It's a well-known fact that an Underwood doesn't drink,' he said, as you wonder how on earth he manages not to, given his game. 'It's strictly taste. I tried it as a schoolboy and hated it.'

Underwood says he wants to run out alongside Rory 'for my mother and deceased father. She's sacrificed a lot and there is no way I can hope to pay her back except by this,' he said, in the way that he speaks, with similar familial intensity, of Rory 'being my brother, and being there for me'.

Just as the transition from lazy days at Cambridge to the heat of a panicked City wears at the youthful, the unencumbered Tony Underwood, so the graduation from the Light Blues, from Leicester, from England B tours to Saturday's game casts him into the fever of much tougher sporting encounters. Hard times coming, then, but still the firm should prosper.

(Photograph omitted)

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