Rugby Union: Underwood takes leave with a view to flying high again

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The Independent Online
IT TOOK a fair amount of character to allow one of the darkest days of his career to provide some fun on the commercial front, but that is a measure of Tony Underwood the man.

As he declared yesterday, on announcing his retirement from rugby union: "I have always endeavoured to enjoy every aspect of my playing career at the top level, and I have enjoyed playing for Newcastle Falcons immensely."

There was certainly more of a smile than a pizza on the face of the England and British Lions wing when he courageously set himself up for a television commercial which exploited the moment the giant All Black Jonah Lomu ran through the 5ft 9in Underwood 60 seconds into the World Cup semi-final against New Zealand in Johannesburg in June 1995.

In a way, that incident, which poor Underwood has never been permitted to forget, captured the essence of his whole career: nothing has been easy for him.

For a start Underwood, born in Ipoh, Malaysia, had to follow in the illustrious slipstream of his older brother Rory, who also wound up his playing career six months ago.

By the time Tony made his debut for Leicester in 1988 Rory, a glamourous RAF pilot, was deep into an England career which saw him score a record 49 tries in 85 appearances.

But young Tony determinedly carved his own niche, first at club level, then on representative fields. He finally made his international debut against Canada at Wembley in 1992 and scored his first international try a month later against South Africa, the first of 19 occasions that the brothers played in the same England side, and in four of those matches they both scored tries.

Tony, though, was always dogged by injury. The mess formerly known as his left knee has finally forced him out, but throughout his career there was invariably some niggle or moment of bad luck which would put him out for a few games, or worse, a few months. He has broken his jaw, tweaked hamstrings and muscles, yet has always bounced back and given his all to the game he loves.

Like Rob Andrew, his director of rugby at Newcastle, a club he joined from Leicester in 1995, Underwood went to Barnard Castle School in County Durham, then went on to Cambridge University winning two Blues; and, like Andrew, he went on to greater things, winning a total of 27 caps for his country, during which he scored 13 tries for England - modest in comparison but still at the impressive Underwood standard of a score every other game. That and a taste of life with the Lions in South Africa in 1997 add up to a distinguished career, but one that has most definitely been prematurely ended.

While he still wants to remain involved with the game, his ambition is to become a commercial pilot. Once a high flier, always a high flier.