Life of a Lion: Rory Underwood

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Rob Andrew and Rory Underwood celebrate winning

One of the greatest try scorers rugby has ever seen, Rory Underwood experienced highs, lows and everything in between during his two Tours with The British & Irish Lions.

The Leicester Tigers and Bedford winger got his first taste of the tourists in 1986, playing in the International Rugby Football Board centenary match against the Rest of the World XV.

He went on to tour Australia and then New Zealand in 1989 and 1993, respectively, playing in all six Test matches as the Lions defeated the Wallabies and pushed the All Blacks close.

And from the very first moment he pulled on the famous red jersey, Underwood was aware of the significance even if the scale of his achievement didn’t hit home at first.

“As a player from the home unions, to get picked for the Lions, it is the highest accolade you can have as a player,” said the former Royal Air Force pilot.

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“My first real involvement was obviously ’86 [in the centenary match], when even though there wasn’t a Tour, we still had that game in Cardiff. It was great putting a red shirt on.

Rory Underwood

“At the time, as a youngster, it was just sort of like, ‘Wow, I’m involved in all this’. But it didn’t quite hit me at the time because it was just that strange, a festival of stuff.

“It wasn’t really until 89’ when you specifically get picked for a Lions Tour that it really, really came home to me when you go on Tour with all these people from other nations.

“That’s when the true essence, what the Lions is all about, really hit home. I don’t think anybody was in the ‘83 Tour, and so we’re all a bunch of newbies going on a Tour as Lions.”

Underwood’s Lions career began in style as the then 25-year-old scored a brace of tries on debut against Western Australia before scoring another two against New South Wales B.

His first Lions Test cap was almost a forgone conclusion but the day did not quite go to plan as the tourists were comprehensively beaten 30-12 in the series opener.

“Obviously, Sir Ian McGeechan was a massive influence on that Tour,” he said. “His leadership in ensuring that it’s now the Lions, not England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, there’s no cliques.

“It’s about how we meld together, both on and off the pitch. He was really strong in making sure that we got together. We went into the Test matches feeling relatively confident and, you know, just got blown away.

“In the first Test match we were absolutely thrashed, just like rabbits in the headlights. It was a real eye opener from that first one, so it brought us back down to earth.”

Better was to come, however, as the Lions bounced back to record a 2-1 series win – including the legendary second Test victory in what became known as ‘The Battle of Ballymore’.

“You do go into a game trying to be as comfortable as possible,” Underwood reflected. “But obviously you are nervous, you never know when you go on the pitch how you will perform.

Rory Underwood, Dean Richards, Rob Andrew, Ieuen Evans and Brian Moore celebrate

“But there was definitely a concerted effort for the first few weeks following the loss to make sure that we at least put a performance in on the pitch and then if we fell short, well, we tried our best.

“We tried to do everything we possibly could to win that second Test. Obviously, it’s been referred to as the Battle of Ballymore due to the physicality of it. We tried to disrupt the flow of ball to the Australian backs, and some of the players at the time took it to heart.

“We were clear out and scored two good tries in the second half that pulled us away. But there was no doubt that there was a bit more of a better team performance in the second Test.

“We fronted up as well rather than taking a backwards step.”

The Lions claimed the decisive third Test 19-18 in a game that was headlined by a mistake from David Campese, whose pass to Greg Martin allowed Ieuan Evans to score a try.

“The final Test was, my memories of it were nip and tuck, quite a close game,” said Underwood.

“It swung in a lot people’s eyes on that mistake by Campo (David Campese) and Greg Martin on the line when most of us were trying to kick it out.

“But obviously Campo’s got that attack mindedness, which makes him just a great player. They try to do a switch or something. I don’t think Greg was quite… I don’t think anybody is on the same speed as Campo is, and that’s one of his attributes.

“But, you know, fortunately for us the ball went to ground and good old Ieuan (Evans) managed to sneak in and score the try and we just managed to hang on to win the game.

“My main recollection after the game was just elation, I’ve still got images of bunches of us with Union Jack flags arm in arm just waving to the crowd and everything.

“First Lions Tour and to get a series victory. It was an outstanding way to finish that Tour.”

Four years later, Underwood was back in the red jersey once again after being selected for the 1993 Tour to New Zealand as the tourists attempted to emulate the heroes of 1971.

After losing the opening Test in New Zealand 20-18, the Lions responded by levelling the series with a stunning 20-7 win in Wellington as Underwood scored the game’s only try.

The tourists ultimately came up just short, losing the third Test and the series, but even so Underwood still has fond memories of the Tour – and, in particular, that superb score.

“There was a large England contingency, so I felt relatively at home and we felt good albeit the challenge was that a lot of us had not played against New Zealand much,” he said.

Royal Air Force and Lions player Rory Underwood

“So, there is an element of going into the unknown and very, very early on, whichever team you played, you know you’re playing against a well-drilled and committed team.

“It was tough, like a lot of Test matches, whichever team you play. We lost the first Test to – it depends which side of the fence you are – a controversial penalty in the last minute.

“But we showed some great character to come back to win the second Test and I scored a try and that’s my only Test try for the Lions, down at Wellington, the old stadium there.

“It was definitely one of my highlights winning that game. A really, really convincing win, 21-9 it was. And then just a shame that some of the wheels came off in the last Test and that was a game too far.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out the way we wanted it to.”

England’s all-time leading try scorer with 49 in 85 appearances, Underwood remains one of the most prolific wingers to have ever played the game due to his incredible strike rate.

But for all he achieved in his magnificent career, the uniqueness of the Lions still holds a special place in his heart – describing his touring experience as “one of the proudest moments”.

He said: “The whole experience, the people I’ve met, the players, the coaching staff, the countries you visited, it’s great when you go and visit a country as England, Ireland, Wales or Scotland.

“But there’s no doubt when you go and visit as the Lions, it’s a massive step up for the country. It never hit home for me, it’s sort of strange because we think of a Lions Tour every, previously three years and then latterly every four years.

“But of course, for South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, a Lions Tour is every 12 years. So, when the Lions go, it’s massive and a fantastic accolade. It’s one of the proudest moments of my life being picked on a Lions Tour and ending up playing Lions’ Tests.”

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