Ever since head coach Eddie Jones name-checked 20-year-old forager Underhill 15 months ago as a potential solution to England’s openside conundrum, speculation has swirled around the former Gloucester academy starlet who has been playing for the Ospreys.
With the roadblock of being based in South Wales removed following his switch to Bath, Underhill now gets his chance going head-to-head with Don Armand and Mark Wilson to start against the Pumas, with England winning the first game in thrilling style.
Economics student Underhill told The Rugby Paper: “I was slightly surprised to get the call and it was a pretty drastic juxtaposition going from being a Cardiff University student into an England environment last week, but I was chuffed to get a chance.
“I enjoyed playing against the Barbarians and although I had to come off a bit early with my shoulder injury, it was a good experience being exposed to that environment – the speed of it, the intensity and the atmosphere.
“My injury wasn’t too bad and I should be in contention for the first Test, so I can’t wait to get there now and get stuck in. I’ve never been to South America before so I don’t really know what to expect, but hopefully it will be a great experience for us all.”
While Underhill has been largely hidden from English audiences with the Ospreys, he has long been on England’s radar having toured previously at U18 level and been mentored in recent years by 2003 World Cup winner, Richard Hill.
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Underhill explained: “Richard’s been hugely influential and we’ve been in contact since I was 17 and still at Gloucester coming through the age group stuff with England.
“Since I left Gloucester two years ago, Richard and I have stayed in regular contact. He gives me lots of superb advice with training techniques and how to conduct myself.
“Eddie’s been in regular touch as well and took the time to come down to talk to me a couple of times. It was great to know I was being looked at and that he’s giving me a chance so early in my career.”
Underhill is a long-time admirer of former New Zealand captain Richie McCaw and also enjoys the work of ace Premiership groundhog Julian Salvi, while at the Ospreys he has been privileged to work alongside Justin Tipuric.
“McCaw pioneered a lot of how we think about a No.7 these days, while Salvi is another special player,” Underhill said. “It’s a bit of a niche position so historically there have always been players who’ve brought something different and I’d put Justin Tipuric up there as well.
“Ospreys was an awesome club and it’s not so much about what you take from someone like Justin, about how they play as such, it’s about how they prepare, the way they recover after matches and the way they conduct themselves off the pitch as well.
“I’ll certainly be cheering Justin on with the Lions and although he faces a big battle with Sam Warburton for that No.7 jersey, if anyone can win it it’s him. He’s such an intelligent bloke and has the skill-set to go with it so it’s going to be fascinating.”
Despite the mystique surrounding the openside position, Underhill says expectations of him are simple. He explained: “It’s a pretty straightforward role; you want to speed your ball up, slow theirs down, make your tackles and do what you can in attack.
“I try not to complicate it too much. There are loads of different ways you can go about it stylistically but how you do it isn’t really important, it’s just about achieving those goals and we know Argentina are going to challenge us there.
“I’m really looking forward to it, though. There’s great competition within the squad and you need that competition to keep pushing each other.”
Underhill, who featured in the recent win over the Barbarians, is unfazed by the hype surrounding him, adding: “There’s been a lot of media chat but I try not to pay too much attention and if Eddie and the coaches are happy with what I do, I’m happy too.
“It’s a young group going to Argentina and maybe we lack experience, but one thing we have been able to bring is a lot of energy. We’ve got a huge collective desire to learn and improve physically so this tour is a really good opportunity to make a mark.”
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