Exclusive: The Thinking Man’s Flanker for criticizing Jones’ coaching style, concussions and why England is a “socialist” environment
What is the atmosphere like around Jones – or is that the right word? “Maybe an aura, something like that,” says Underhill. “There’s an expectation – that’s one of the bigger things. An expectation that you will perform well and that different people will react differently to it and have different experiences with it anyway.
Under an outdoor canopy of the English team hotel, Sam Underhill sits on Eddie Jones’ coaching style at a time that is perceived as a fresh start: the first autumn after the interruption of a British & Irish Lions tour, with several new faces showing the red- pink team bow.
“As a player, I can only speak for myself and, on the whole, I have a lot of respect for him as a coach. You want to play your best rugby and I think I played my best rugby here. I played brilliant games here that I will always remember. This is of enormous value to me. That’s how I would sum it up, I think. “
You could say Underhill is the thinking man’s flanker, or maybe the flanking man’s thinker. While he is preparing to win his 25th international match against Tonga today at the age of 25, he mentions, among other things, the victory over New Zealand in the World Cup semi-finals in Japan in October 2019. And the autumn could have been another international player with the same opponents three years ago when Underhill raced down the Twickenham sideline in temptation ecstasy, only to rule out the result for a marginal offside.
And while Underhill wasn’t one of the three English runner-ups – all of the strikers in Tom Curry, Ellis Genge and Courtney Lawes – Jones named this week, he leads in a different way. “One of the big things we’re trying to get across is that everyone is responsible for the team,” says Underhill. “It’s not just one or two guys who say, ‘We are leaders, follow us’. There is of course a place for this, but independence and independent learning and relationship building and the ability to solve problems in a team, that is a big focus here.
“It’s very player oriented – our work ethic, our standards in training, our problem solving on the pitch. And Eddie amplifies that by letting us do that. He’s a great teacher in that regard because he lets you figure it out for yourself and gives you the structure for it. ”And with a smile Underhill continues,“ It would not be a centralized government regime, it is more of a socialist program from that perspective. “
Jones recently hired Deloitte to work with its executives, and as a management consultancy might put it, Underhill’s USP is adamant: he packs and carries and jackals and harries and only stops with injuries – like the hip problem that left him out of England’s disappointing Six Nations earlier this year before missing out on this Lions trip. Or a concussion, more of that in a moment. If England are to speed up their rucks and play before the collapse as Jones promises, Underhill will be crucial.
The training in England is of course no joke. “At the risk of being pedantic, I would use the word ‘enjoyment’ instead of ‘fun’,” says Underhill – but he claims that the atmosphere is relaxed when having dinner ‘together’ outside, at the pool table and at the coffee maker . what Jones critics like former English captain Lawrence Dallaglio fail to see in the face of the drain of Jones’ staff. Underhill is also moving about the fact that the pandemic, which is excluding viewers, was a “hollow” time for “social sport”.
But while the audience numbers are now back in high numbers, other issues remain at play. Underhill was skipped from an England A-game in June due to a concussion and had similar problems early in his career. The epitome of a modern gamer with his muscular 6 foot 2 inch body, he says he accepts a risk in gambling and empathizes with the earlier stars struggling with symptoms of an alleged brain injury.
“I’m pretty good right now, pretty good, although I don’t want to tempt Providence,” says Underhill. “There’s a new test coming out, a swab of saliva that’s exciting when it offers quantifiable objectivity. It can get pretty overwhelming because you don’t have anything to hang your hat on to say that is the definitive answer. I think about how much physio we get a week and we’re still playing, let alone what you’ll need when you’re done. It’s an area of the game that can be massively improved to take care of players after they retire. “
And that leads to discussions about Underhill’s mobile café, which he and his clubmate Ben Spencer from Bath are running out of a converted old Land Rover. While Underhill expresses the brand – “grass, commercial und, roots” – he says it’s not just a sideline. “It’s named after grassroots sport, and the goal is to create potential employment opportunities for people from local clubs. I won’t be a barista after rugby, but we both want it to go well and come out a little more in the community to show the face and meet people. “