Rugby Union: Underwoods prepare for close contact

The flying wing brothers are on opposite sides for today's Premiership game at Goldington Road. Chris Hewett talks to Newcastle's Tony Underwood
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The Independent Online
FORTY-SEVEN different players, 22 of them international virgins, in the space of a dozen Tests and not even the remotest suggestion of an unchanged team. That is some state of flux. Clive Woodward's catch- all selection philosophy - not so much a swish of the new broom as a tidal wave of industrial cleaner - has been so spectacularly inclusive that until recently, Tony Underwood was, rumoured to be the only active English rugby player still awaiting the "Hi, it's Clive" phone call.

If Underwood, a 29-year-old double Lion, World Cup veteran and Lomu survivor (well, sort of) was reduced to wondering whether his older brother Rory might get the nod before him, he was happily disabused of the notion on Wednesday morning. Woodward added 12 players to his original 26-man party for the forthcoming cakewalk against the Netherlands, and the Newcastle left-wing was among them. Needless to say, the Twickenham switchboard was not jammed with celebratory phone calls from Amsterdam and Eindhoven.

"There's a big gap between making the squad and making the team," Underwood points out. "Look at the wings involved: Rees, Healey, Beim, Brown, Luger. Loads of them. It's come as a lovely surprise, this call-up, but I'm not assuming anything." All the same, the Underwood name carries rather more clout than any of the others. If Rory laid the dynastic foundations with a record-shattering 49 tries in 85 international appearances, Tony has matched the strike rate with 13 in 25.

All of which makes today's Premiership encounter between Bedford and Newcastle at Goldington Road an occasion to savour, even if Rory, at a positively primordial 35, now conjures up visions of bus passes rather than scoring passes. "Ah yes, the old man," laughs Underwood Jnr. "This will be the first time we've been on opposite sides in a completely serious match and, interestingly enough, we'll be eyeball to eyeball - him on the Bedford right wing, me on the Newcastle left. What if he scores? What if I score? There's a bit of pride at stake here, I think."

Underwood is enjoying his rugby again, revelling in the more free-spirited role assigned to him by Newcastle as the champions endeavour to graft a route two and a route three on to their notoriously conservative route- one approach. "Yes, I think we are doing a bit more with the ball this season," he agrees. "I've always roamed off my wing and gone looking for work, but last year we were happy to take it up the middle because it was winning us matches. I was perfectly able to live with that."

Not that he had to live with it very much. Having played his way back into Jack Rowell's England side for the 1997 Five Nations and then sneaked a place on that summer's Lions tour of South Africa - seven tries in eight appearances, including a hat-trick against Northern Free State and a match- turning double tackle against Gauteng - Underwood had the cruciate ligaments in his left knee comprehensively rearranged at Bath in the first game of last season and spent months on the treatment table.

"Everything had been going so well, but I knew the knee injury was a bad one as soon as it happened. It wasn't a total reconstruction job and I didn't need immediate surgery, but it didn't feel absolutely right even when I started playing regularly again in February. I struggled through to the end of the season but I wasn't firing and, when we wrapped up the title, I decided to have an operation to clear everything up rather than gamble what was left of my fitness by touring with England."

Contrary to popular suspicion, the thick-skinned, in-your-face, up-your- nose Newcastle experience has been good for the Underwood soul, as well as the Underwood career. The guy was always quick, blindingly so, but there was always just a hint of fragility about him. Remember the 1995 World Cup? A sensational length-of-the-field try to help England through that gloriously neurotic quarter-final against the Wallabies, followed by trial by Lomu in the last four. Utterly sublime one moment, barely continent the next.

Woodward is not alone in recognising that Underwood has hardened up during his sojourn on the banks of the Tyne. "I'm certainly a little more physical these days," he acknowledges. "I still do what I do, but the whole Newcastle approach, allied to the influence of people like Steve Black (the renowned Geordie conditioning specialist who recently left the Falcons to take up a five-year contract with the Welsh national team) has had an impact, definitely. It's one of the big bonuses of professionalism, this unrestricted access to physiological expertise."

Unlike last season, when he was in considerable discomfort after a match, Underwood now feels ready for pretty much anything. He turned in a strikingly committed display against Gloucester at Kingsholm last weekend, albeit in a losing cause, and he is positively relishing the prospect of renewing hostilities with Saracens at Gateshead in seven days' time. "If I couldn't get myself motivated for a Premiership of this quality, where the spread of quality sides is getting bigger almost by the week, I'd think there was something very wrong," he says. "It's all on, every time you take the field."

That enthusiasm should come as music to Woodward's ears; Underwood may be less powerful than an Adedayo Adebayo and maybe a centimetre slower than a Dan Luger, but few seriously question his status as the most accomplished specialist left-wing in the country. Fitness willing, next year's World Cup is a very realistic target indeed.

Not that Rory, who shared 18 international occasions with his kid brother between 1992 and 1995, massages the boy's ego with weekly outpourings of support. "It's funny," admits Tony, "but, whenever we talk, the last subject on the agenda is rugby. I love playing as much as ever, but there are other things in life."

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