Sam Underhill claims there's more to rugby than the 'flash stuff'

‘There’s more to rugby than the flash stuff!’: Sam Underhill defends amount of kicking in game as England flanker hits back at critics of under-fire Lions tour, insisting ‘rugby is very much a live sport’

  • Rugby administrators have introduced new laws this season for a flashier game
  • Sam Underhill believes players have the responsibility to educate fans 
  • The flanker claimed a season-and-a-half of lockdown matches was tough 
  • The 25-year-old believes the return of fans will re-ignite the sport and supporters

Rugby is in one of its existential crisis modes. Is the sport any good? What are we doing this for? Does it need major change?

Hand-wringers are out in force after a behind-closed-doors Lions series that many would have shut the curtains on if it were in their back garden. The series was in stark contrast to a vibrant end to the last Premiership season.

Twelve-a-side launches, more new law amendments to change the sport again, innovations aplenty all promising to save rugby from the scrapheap.

But at Bath lies a different perspective from Sam Underhill, top England flanker and while still only 25 a sage thinker on his game.

Bath flanker Sam Underhill has defended kicking and defensive sets in the game of rugby

South Africa were victorious in a behind-closed-doors Lions series which came under fire

‘We’ve got a responsibility as players, teams, as a sport, to further people’s knowledge of the sport,’ Underhill tells Sportsmail.

‘There’s a lot in what teams do that even commentators will bemoan, it’s ‘oh they’re kicking the ball away again’ and I don’t think that’s incredibly helpful.

‘Contestable kicking and defensive sets are a massive part of the game. They might not be the most exciting but if as a fan you can appreciate what a team is trying to do then maybe that changes your perspective.

‘I don’t think the sport has an issue with the way it’s played. You can still win a game by chucking the ball around, and you can still win one by having great set-pieces and a more structured game. There’s a gap to exploit there, of telling people what is going on.’

Underhill notes that players found a season-and-a-half of lockdown matches tough. No family, friends, socialising after or any atmosphere at all robbed rugby of many charms.

Fans will return to stadiums as the new season of the Premiership gets underway on Friday

But more than that he thinks the return of fans will re-ignite not just the sport but supporters’ love of the more nuanced elements of it.

‘Rugby is very much a live sport and you definitely appreciate the less glamorous sides of the game when you’re there watching it, when you can hear collisions, can get a sense of the atmosphere, the energy,’ he adds.

‘That’s where I think we’ve struggled because everyone is watching on TV and there are things that look great on TV and things that don’t but you can appreciate them in person.

‘I saw a lot of comments about the last Lions Test. It wasn’t the most open thing but equally if you were there, a 16-all game would be incredible to be at. I think there’s a lot more to rugby that crowds appreciate than just the flash stuff.’

Underhill believes fans would have enjoyed the last Lions Test more if they were able to attend

Rugby administrators clearly want more of the flash stuff. This season, new laws are designed to create a better show. For example the ’50:22′ which will award the attacking team a lineout if a kick from that team’s own half bounces in the opposition’s 22 and goes into touch and a goal-line drop-out to the defence if the ball is held-up over the try-line, rather than a five-metre scrum.

Changes for this season 

Several law tweaks are designed to create more space and attacking opportunities this year.

50:22: Like rugby league’s 40:20 — if a kick struck from a team’s own half bounces in the opposing 22 and out, the attacking side will gain the lineout.

Goal-line drop-out: If a player is held-up in-goal when attempting to score the defence will have a goal-line drop-out, instead of an attacking five-metre scrum.

No pre-latching: Three or more players cannot bind together prior to receiving the ball, and no more than one ‘latch’ can join a ball-carrier before contact, or a penalty will be given. Aimed to reduce long pick-and-go sequences near the try-line.

Lower-limb clear-outs: Penalising players who target lower limbs of ‘jacklers’ at rucks.

By Rob Wildman 

‘It’ll be more open and entertaining and it’s going to get harder to contain teams,’ Underhill says. 

‘It’ll be about scoring more points rather than stopping. Quins showed it last year, they were brilliant at it. It was really entertaining. I still think there’s been a lot to be said for a cold, wet night at the Rec where you can’t really step or pass the ball but there’s definitely a case for the game becoming more open.’

That means, for Underhill and many others, adaptations are needed. He and Bath want to attack more — no doubt inspired by the signing of Danny Cipriani — but realise it will take time.

A focus on performances, not necessarily results, is their early-season mantra.

With England it feels change is coming too. Underhill was not selected for the Lions — for which he says he ‘wasn’t massively disappointed as I wasn’t entitled to it’.

Instead, the flanker had ‘one of my favourite experiences’ with a ‘down-to-earth, hard-working and fun’ young England squad who beat the USA and Canada in July.

With so much talent now at Eddie Jones’s disposal, Underhill is seeking improvements to the attacking side of his game, while becoming even better in his role as a feared tackler.

Away from rugby he is fixing up too — converting his 1990s Land Rover Defender into a mobile coffee shop with scrum-half Ben Spencer.

The pair have started Grass & Roots and want to sell flat whites at the Rec in Bath and at rugby clubs in the South West from Underhill’s car which is currently at a coachworks being re-imagined.

‘It’s quite embarrassing as they keep sending me photos of all the rusty bits and I keep having to say ‘yeah, that needs a bit of fixing up!’ laughs Underhill.

‘I was driving it as my one and only car, which was a bit daft as it wasn’t a comfortable daily drive!

‘The dog loved it! Hopefully it will be better served as a stationary coffee van than it ever was driving.’

Fixing up an old machine that ran like a dream in the 90s may be a fine metaphor for what Bath have been trying to do over the past two decades.

Underhill seeks improvements to his attacking game to make it into Eddie Jones’s England side

Sitting at their Farleigh House stately home training ground amid the manicured lawns on a sunny pre-season day it does seem incredible Bath have won just one trophy — the second-tier European Challenge Cup — since 1998. But this crop of players feel no weight of that history.

‘If you are into Grade II listed buildings, cool, but other than that I don’t think this place adds to the performance level of the club,’ Underhill says wryly.

‘Every club has a good team on paper, they are all playing with the same rules, same salary cap — I don’t think we have got any more of an advantage than anyone else when it comes to players.

‘You need strength in depth and a cohesive identity and I would say we haven’t had in the last few years.

The flanker claims the stately Farleigh House training ground doesn’t give Bath an advantage

‘I don’t think that history adds to expectation on us. I don’t think it should be relevant to what happened 20-plus years ago — which might be controversial.

‘It’s a long old time ago. The club is completely different. The game is entirely different.

‘We have a very strong attachment to the city, the supporters, the surrounding areas, and it’s a brilliant place to play. That’s what makes the club special and will drive future success.

‘You’ve got to think about now and the future as opposed to what you used to do.’

That last thought could well be a mission statement not just for Bath but the sport itself.

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