A cold, sorry November Saturday, and at Twickenham a first gathering of the clan since the Six Nations, and that 13-9 defeat to Ireland at the Aviva Stadium. The crowd’s enthusiasm was unaffected by the late morning weather, a steady, dismal drizzle, the kind that soaks you through without you even really noticing that you’re getting wet.
All the talk around the ground, now, speculation about exactly where England stand, back-and-forths over whether Dylan Hartley should still be skipper or Jamie George starting at hooker instead, who should play at lock, and if Mike Brown was still the right man at full-back. After Eddie Jones blooded 11 players on the tour of Argentina, England feel a less settled side now than they did on the other side of the summer.
Three of those rookies, Harry Williams, Alex Lozowski and Sam Underhill, made the squad for this match. A fourth, Tom Curry, was picked too but dislocated his wrist and was replaced by the uncapped Sam Simmonds. All of which made this feel like an early look at the team Jones hopes England will be the next time they play Argentina, in the pool stages of the World Cup. That match is two years away, and from here on in, everyone is auditioning for a place in the squad. No one’s going to get cast off on the back of this match, though. It was an ordinary performance that left, as Hartley put it, “a lot to work on”. So, at the end of 80 minutes, the answers to those questions were not necessarily much clearer.
On the openside, at least, Underhill did well enough to earn modest praise from Jones. “He’s a good little player, and he’ll only get better,” Jones said. “He looks like he can be a genuine seven for us.”
England think so highly of him they made him one of their two defensive captains for the match. People have been talking about Underhill as England’s next No7 for a long while now, since he captained the Under-18 team to the European Championship in 2014. They were unbeaten that season. When Underhill fetched up at the Ospreys while he was studying at Cardiff University, the RFU development coaches Richard Hill and Joe Lydon would pop across the Severn to watch him play.
When the Welsh papers started talking about whether Underhill might qualify for Wales through residency, the RFU was quick to let him know that he was wanted back in England. And as soon as he moved to Bath, he was called up to the senior squad. Here, in his first start at Twickenham, the crowd got a first live look at him in an England shirt. It’s quite a sight. Underhill has the upper body of a cartoon superhero, with arms that seem to dangle at acute angles because his oversized muscles push them out away from his frame. His shoulders seem ideally suited for slinging things over: sacks, logs, hostages from pillaged villages, Argentinian runners.
Early in the first half, Argentina sent their inside-centre Santiago González Iglesias hurtling down Underhill’s channel off the back of a lineout. Iglesias shaped to step around George Ford and into Underhill’s path, which, he swiftly realised, was something like swerving around a car into the path of an oncoming bus. Underhill hit him clean in the midriff with a tackle that left him flat and panting, the kind of blow which TV directors love to play over and again in slow motion. Iglesias left Underhill well alone after that, but it was the first clip in a highlights reel of Underhill’s hard hits on the opposition.
It was followed in short order by a couple of eye-watering tackles on lock Tomás Lavanini, one of which knocked him way, way back the way he had come; another on Ramiro Moyano, who was brought up like he had collided with a brick wall, and a brutal clear-out on Agustín Creevy. Anyone in an Argentina shirt who came Underhill’s way ended up flat on their backs, though Pablo Matera did slip by him on the right wing at one point.
Five minutes from time, when Argentina strung together 20-odd phases in England’s 22, Underhill was still busy hacking them down, and battered over Joaquín Tuculet in the far corner as he closed in on the try-line.
So he no doubt made his mark on the Argentinians, in all those black and blue bruises. That will not be enough in the long run, though; Jones will want more from him. The game seemed to flow around Underhill when England had the ball in hand, and he did not have the kind of impact at the breakdown that he often does when playing in the Premiership. When he conceded a penalty by coming off his feet midway through the second half, Jones exploded in anger, shouting something like: “Fuck, how fucking stupid are we?” and smashed his fist on to the table in front of him.
Jones said that he had forgotten about that after the match, and that, like as not, it was irritation at England’s overall performance as much as it was Underhill’s mistake. Among the rest of the rookies, Lozowski showed well when he came on, and made England’s second try with a swift break, but otherwise, the match was a slog – a “grindathon” as Jones called it. “These games happen,” he said. Hopefully not too often.