Steve Borthwick axing Sam Underhill sent shockwaves through England – no one is safe

Sam Underhill – Steve Borthwick axing Sam Underhill sent shockwaves through England – no one is safe

Sam Underhill (centre) hasn’t played in almost 12 months after a series of injuries and concussion problems – Getty Images/Dan Mullan

Ben Earl admits that Sam Underhill’s omission sent shockwaves through the England camp and hopes his speed can help earn him a World Cup place.

‌Underhill, a star of England’s surge to the final four years ago, was left out by Steve Borthwick at the start of last week. Ten days out from a first warm-up game against Wales and 12 days from the official World Cup squad announcement, ferocious back-row competition remains.

‌Earl, yet to start a Test match despite winning 15 caps from the bench and growing into a key performer for Saracens, is in a group of nine back-rowers. He, Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry, Tom Pearson, Lewis Ludlam, Alex Dombrandt, Billy Vunipola and Jack and Tom Willis are probably fighting over five spots in the final 33 depending on Borthwick’s positional splits.

‌“It’s phenomenal,” Earl said. “I guess not many nations will have the competition we have in terms of experience. In 2019, Sam Underhill was probably one of the players of the tournament.

‌“That just goes to show how competitive it is. Sam trained brilliantly and it was a shock to us all that he was no longer involved. That really struck home with us.”

‌Borthwick’s transparency amid this competition has been another feature of what Earl called “the healthiest and best environment” he has been involved with as an England international.

A feature of the Eddie Jones era was how players would sometimes be alerted to their selection by WhatsApp; a short message on their mobile phones telling them they had been invited to a certain camp. That is no longer the case under Borthwick.

‌“No, with Steve it has been very much more personal, and that’s been great,” Earl said. “I know a lot of players have enjoyed that side of it, not staying up late at night waiting to be added to a WhatsApp group, which I know a few people have experienced. That has been a really nice change.”

‌A close friend of Zak Crawley, Earl was “buzzing “ to watch the England opener strike a sparkling 189 at Old Trafford last week. He suggested that the innings was a vindication of Crawley’s persistence and determination to “stick to his game plan”.

‌Borthwick has been vocal about wanting players to feel comfortable in his environment in order to produce their best. Name-checking captain Owen Farrell and coaches Richard Wigglesworth and Kevin Sinfield, Earl hopes that his dynamism can add something different. Saracens have certainly benefited from the openside flanker’s pace over recent years.

‌“I guess probably my speed in everything I do,” Earl said of how he hopes to stand out from his peers. “I’d like to think I’m probably one of the quicker forwards that we’ve got available. If I can use that ball in hand or without the ball I’d like to think that can help.

‌“I’d like to see myself as a bit of a link between the forwards and the backs; that’s something I’ve certainly enjoyed doing with the club. I’ve worked with Owen [Farrell] and a few of the guys for some time now, and I know how each 10 and each nine works in different ways.

‌“Richard Wigglesworth has been brilliant with telling me where he’d want to put me in attack, and telling me how he thinks I’m best used. Kevin Sinfield likewise in defence.

‌“That’s why it’s been the most enjoyable camp I’ve been involved in, because each coach has really given you licence to do what you do best. I’ve just found that’s been amazing for me. Each player’s slightly different and I probably don’t fit into your out-and-out seven all the time.

‌“I can sometimes play a bit differently, so that’s why I’ve really enjoyed being involved in that.”

‌England will hold another training session on Wednesday before leaving camp and reconvening on Sunday ahead of their match in Cardiff on August 5. Two days later, Borthwick will announce his 33-man squad.

‌“We have not spoken about Wales [yet],” said Earl. “Wales probably starts on Sunday. That’s what Steve has been brilliant with. The message he puts across the whole camp is that there’s no point thinking about [pool-stage opponents] Argentina and no point thinking about Japan, or whoever.

‌“We have got to think about the training session tomorrow and come Sunday we all meet up again, preparing to beat Wales. Because a win in Wales is not given to you.”

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