New Bath signing and England hopeful Sam Underhill has made a huge impact at Wales region Ospreys, but with the openside moving back to his home country for the start of the new season, we look at his chances of making it into the national set-up in the near future.
Underhill has made such an impact in Wales that rumours spread the player could stay in the country whilst completing his university studies and qualify for Wales on residency. However, his move to Premiership team Bath will mean once more a clamour to see the 20 year old included in England’s immediate plans.
England coach Eddie Jones has so far favoured Wasps back rower James Haskell for the number seven shirt, with former national openside Chris Robshaw being moved back to his traditional position of blindside. The duo have combined superbly well and with Billy Vunipola at the back of the scrum have caused havoc for their opposition since the Australian took over the side.
With Haskell’s toe injury last year throwing a spanner into the works, Northampton Saints flanker Tom Wood stepped up to fill the void left by Haskell and impressed in England’s autumn internationals at the tail end of 2016.
Both men were once again named in England’s training squad for the Six Nations this year and are likely to be competing for the same shirt this year.
Further down the pecking order are the likes of Teimana Harrison and Jack Clifford, who have both featured for Eddie Jones’ team at openside previously, whether that be starting or from the bench. Both players were part of a second-string England side that faced Wales in a ‘friendly’ match at Twickenham last May.
Beyond these four players, Jones has brought in Leicester Tigers flanker Mike Williams into his squad and Wasps back rower Sam Jones, with both having the potential to play for England at seven, although unfortunately-timed injuries have robbed the Australian of the services of both so far.
Exeter Chiefs-bound openside Matt Kvesic has struggled to impress the England coaches and rarely featured for his country in 2016, although for many he has been seen as the best option for the shirt given his skills set being the closest thing the country has to a ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’ openside.
In many respects, Sam Underhill fits into this mould as well, but arguably offers more around the park as a ‘link’ player than Kvesic currently shows. While both can cause problems for their opposition at the breakdown, Underhill is more of a threat in attack and offers England’s best chance at an all-round specialist openside.
But Jones has shown that the game’s obsession with sixes and sevens is something of a sideshow: you can still win games convincingly as long as your back row has balance to it. It’s something James Haskell spoke to this writer about in his recent interview exclusively for Pundit Arena:
“I think people become obsessed with numbers on shirts, I think it’s been a long while since England had a seven who was: a) an out-and-out seven – whatever that means – and b) allowed to play in that capacity.
“George Smith and Richie McCaw were the last two sevens I saw who played off the back of the lineout, off the side of the scrum, given free reign to do what they want at the breakdown.
“As a backrow it’s about the balance, it’s about what you’re required to do. Billy Vunipola’s the out-and-out ball carrier, Robbo [Robshaw] does a bit of everything and we want a destructive defender at seven who can get stuck in at the breakdown but can also carry when it’s needed and that’s what I’m asked to do.”
Regardless, Underhill was given his chance to shine in Wales and for such a young player has made the most of his opportunities in the Pro12 and in Europe.
England are certainly not without options at seven and are in a better position now than at the start of 2016, but if Underhill can nail down a starting position at Bath and can show the same sort of consistency in the attritional battleground that is the Premiership, then he has an excellent opportunity to muddy the selection waters for the England coaches in 2017 and beyond.
Overall verdict: With Eddie Jones likely to rest Lions stars for this year’s autumn internationals, Underhill could get his chance later in the year, but he will face serious competition from a number of other candidates.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena