By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – For a few glorious moments on Saturday, Sam Underhill’s place in rugby folklore was assured — until the TMO stepped in to ruin England’s day and deprive their flanker of an after-dinner story that would have kept him in comfortable retirement.
Trailing world champions New Zealand by a point with four minutes to go, Underhill looked to have capped an outstanding personal performance when he seized on a chargedown and galloped forwards.
Between him and the line stood Beauden Barrett but an out-of-nowhere shimmy caused the double world player of the year to spin through 360 degrees in confusion, allowing Underhill to power past him to score in the corner and send Twickenham wild.
However, the celebrations were cut short as the TMO ruled that Courtney Lawes had been offside before making the chargedown and, instead, New Zealand held on to win 16-15.
“It’s a bit of a blur. The ball popped up and I was in the right place. I just tried to get the ball in the right hand and go for the corner,” said Underhill, who was philosophical about the marginal call that has divided pundits.
“It was disappointing but in the grand scheme of things, in terms of the game, there were quite a lot of fine margins like that which could have gone either way and we came out on the wrong end of that and that’s the way it goes,” said Underhill, who has suffered badly with injuries over the last 18 months.
“It’s tough to take but it was marginal and that’s the game. Ultimately, the ref’s decision is final — if he says the grass is pink then the grass is pink — so we try to refocus for the next job because that’s what’s important, we can’t go back and change anything.”
The disallowed try did not detract from a superb all-round display by the 22-year-old Underhill, winning his seventh cap. Given his chance after injury ruled out Tom Curry, he showed he is more than just a chop-tackling machine.
“We spoke about being direct and physical and there’s no room to not be a ball-carrier,” he said. “All forwards now have got to do all things so that’s a part of my game I’ve been trying to improve and, hopefully, I’m getting better at it. I enjoyed it a lot.”
Coach Eddie Jones felt that the emergence of Curry and Underhill battling to fill a position that has been a problem for years has been one of the major steps forward in recent matches.
“We are increasing our depth all the time,” he said.
“Underhill has played maybe 80 minutes for his club all season and comes out and plays a really tough game at seven. He’s got a nice little acceleration so, with Curry, we’ve got a really good battle there.”
As ever though, the Australian was not about to let Underhill get carried away.
“He’s dipped his toe in once but it’s like a batsman who comes out in his first innings and scores 70. It doesn’t mean he’s going to be the next Joe Root or Don Bradman, does it?” Jones said.
“You’ve got to do that consistently and that’s the thing. But, certainly, he’s played well and when he’s played previously he’s played well but he’s had a terrible run with injuries and now hopefully he’ll get some consistency in playing.”
England face Japan next Saturday before finishing their November internationals against Australia.
New Zealand travel to Dublin to take on Ireland.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, Editing by Ian Chadband)