Winged winger strikes back

Alex Spink hears a riposte to his country's critics from Rory Underwood
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WERE he not deskbound these days, Rory Underwood might be tempted to take to the skies and drop something unpleasant on to the critics of England's rugby team. The RAF pilot, like the rest of his team-mates, has had enough of the ritual disparagement.

As England's record try scorer, Underwood is widely perceived as the person most frustrated by the national team's show of modest ambition this season. If this is the case then he hides it well. Experience has taught him there are swings and roundabouts in rugby's international playground.

Underwood points to the fact that the first two or three years of his 84-cap career were not an altogether invigorating experience. And nor were England a brilliant side immediately Geoff Cooke took over. "It took us a couple of years then before we played any decent rugby and that cycle has come around again," he said. "The trouble is that people seem only to remember Grand Slams these days.

"As a new team we are trying to get ourselves organised and the constant criticism is not helping. We have all grown tired of the way we are being slagged off and it has done nothing for confidence. When you are in a transitional period confidence is the most important factor."

Underwood needs no telling that England have become victims of their own success. "Not so long ago any away win in the Five Nations was acclaimed," he said. "But three Grand Slams in five years have changed perspectives. At Murrayfield last weekend we beat a Scotland side on the verge of a Grand Slam fairly convincingly, and all that is being said is that we were boring party-poopers.

"I suppose it is to be expected. It gets piled on with the same sort of attitude that the press have about any England team when they're not setting the field on fire. It's the English Disease. But too much of the criticism about it not being a wide enough style is ill thought out."

There is, argues the 32-year-old Underwood, little or no consideration given to the fact that a third of the side are young players trying to come to terms with the international arena. "These guys need support," he said. Confidence is the big factor in international rugby and this constant sniping strips it away.

"Myself, Will Carling and Jerry Guscott are well used to the criticism - we have had it for years - but it's very sad when youngsters like Paul Grayson and Jon Sleightholme say they are already fed up with it."

Sleightholme, his fellow England wing, says the squad is working on the "spectator friendliness" of their game. "But not in a reckless fashion," he said. "A risk-oriented performance against Scotland might have cost us victory. It's frustrating not to see the ball, but the last thing I want is to get it with three men wrapped around me. That was the likelihood against Scotland. Ireland, hopefully, will be different."

But is Underwood, the scorer of 49 tries for his country, happy playing in a side which has managed two in three games? Was he not frustrated and bored at having to wait until the 69th minute of the Scotland game for his first pass?

"Look, people might be bored sitting there with their stopwatches waiting to see when I touch the ball. But between the first and 69th minute I was not feeling bored at all. I was chasing kicks, defending and providing options of danger elsewhere. Much as I might like to, I can't always be scoring tries.

"Most people who play competitive sport know it's not a question of either winning or playing good rugby," he said. "Yet certain critics seem to want that dividing line and try to catch out the players by saying 'Oh, so winning is the most important thing.' I find that intensely irritating."

An irritated Underwood, in the air or on the ground, is a dangerous proposition. Ireland should beware.