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Sam Underhill's crocodile roll verdict: 'I don't think the game would be any poorer if they got rid of it'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Fit-again England poacher Sam Underhill believes that rugby wouldn’t suffer as a spectacle if the controversial but legal crocodile roll was taken out of the game and made illegal. The breakdown manoeuvre came in for much scrutiny last month when Jack Willis was seriously injured against Italy in the Guinness Six Nations.

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Willis was called up to the England squad for the championship in January when the originally selected Underhill pulled up with a hip injury just before the squad was about to start preparations.

A few weeks later, Willis was left in agony on the Twickenham turf and facing up to a year out of the sport following damage to multiple parts of his knee when he was crocodile rolled away from a breakdown by Italy’s Sebastian Negri.

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Sam Underhill features in Knocked, the RugbyPass documentary on concussion

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Sam Underhill features in Knocked, the RugbyPass documentary on concussion

That resulted in much debate about that type of tackle and Underhill, who has returned to action in recent weeks with Bath in the Gallagher Premiership, has now given his take on a manoeuvre that has caused serious injuries at times to the rolled away player.

“It’s difficult because there is an awful lot of times where it is used and it is okay and no one gets hurt and it’s fine but from my point of view, I don’t think the game would be any poorer if they got rid of it.

“The only reason you would roll someone is if you can’t get underneath them and the only reason you wouldn’t be able to get underneath someone is if you are late or if you are too high, so from my perspective it doesn’t need to happen.

“If you have got good technique at the breakdown, if you are coming in low, if you are coming in square and more importantly you are not giving a poacher time to get in, you alleviate the contest. Like, you can see examples, especially in Test rugby with good aggressive work at the breakdown, teams are in early and they are in low and they are clearing past bodies, that is also pretty safe.

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“Obviously you are getting hit but there is less lateral force and it is less messy. Yeah, I don’t think the game would be any poorer if you got rid of them [crocodile rolls]. If anything it would encourage better breakdown technique.”

It was May 2019 when England forward Underhill described the breakdown as one of the last grey areas of the game, telling RugbyPass: “If you’re trying to get over the ball and have two blokes who are over 100 kilos flying into you off their feet, it can be pretty difficult to survive that.”

Nearly two years later, the back row suggests that the breakdown has become a slightly safer player for poachers such as himself. The 24-year-old, who has 22 England caps, said: “In theory, yeah. At the moment refs are rewarding people when there is clear and obvious pictures.

“There is clear and obvious pictures when there is isolation, you are less likely to get steamrolled by guys coming to clean you out. The fact that those decisions are being made sooner is probably protecting people.

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“Also referees – and I have been done a couple of times this season for being too long and being off my feet which is something that jacklers have historically been guilty of – if you have got a guy competing for the ball off his feet, there is only one way that a cleaner is going to get him out.

“It becomes quite a low, quite a dangerous uncontrolled contest so I do think the way refs are reffing it now you have got a big emphasis on having your chest up and clearly being on your feet which also make it easier to clear you out, but it does make it safer.”

Explaining the subtle difference further, Underhill added: “It’s interpreted slightly differently the last two seasons. Referees are rewarding better pictures more. It has become more about choosing your opportunities.

“Can you get someone isolated, can you show the referee good pictures, can you be clearly on your feet clearly lifting the ball? From that perspective there is probably fewer but more obvious opportunities at the breakdown and that comes off the back of defensive work.

“An awful of good breakdown stuff comes off the back of your defensive work so if you have got a good aggressive defence, if you are getting off the line well, if your tackle selection is good and that is key, then those things open up but you can’t force that to happen.

“I don’t think you can chase things. When you do that does more damage than good for a defence. If you are constantly jumping into breakdowns and shortening up your (defensive) line that also is detrimental. It always has been about good decisions but increasingly so now with the way the refs are interpreting it.”

Watching England on from the outside in recent months having become a regular starter for Eddie Jones in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup, Underhill said: “If you are not there, there will be things spoken about that they will be trying to do that I won’t be aware of. As someone watching from the outside you won’t know what is going on inside.

“I don’t think there is any insights I have gleaned from it. To be honest, I have been enjoying getting back playing (with Bath). It’s part of the game being injured and having to watch things. It’s frustrating as a player to not be fit… but there is probably no brilliant (England) insights I can give you.”

Instead, Underhill is focused on Bath and their hope of igniting a run of stellar form similar to last season’s post-lockdown restart which took them all the way to the playoffs. They are currently in ninth place, eight points shy of fourth-place Sale.

“It’s possible,” he said. “The good thing whether it happens or not it’s up to us because if we are as good as we can be then it is not out of reach. But we will have to put our best foot forward. That is the old adage – everyone is trying to do what they are capable of doing. We have got a group that can do it but we’ll see.”

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Shaylen 3 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

These guys will be utility players Nick it cannot be helped because coaches cannot help themselves. Rassie looks at players like these and sees the ability to cover multiple positions without losing much. It allows the 6-2 or 7-1. He wont change his coaching style or strategy for one player. At provincial level players like these are indispensable. If there is an injury to your starting 12 but your back up 12 is a bit iffy then a coach is going to go with the back up 10 who is gold and who can play a good 12. Damian Willemse for the Springboks is an obvious case, for the Stormers its the same. Dobson plays him at 12 or 15, with Gelant in the team he plays 12 but if Gelant goes down he doesnt go for his back up 15, he just puts Willemse there. With Frawley its the same at international and provincial level. He just slots in wherever. Frans Steyn made a career out of it. He was much maligned though as a youngster as he never fully developed into any role. He then went to Japan and France to decide for himself what kind of player he was, put on muscle and retained his big boot, ran over players and booted the ball long and came back into the Springboks after about 3 years away and was then certain about how he wanted to play the game no matter what position. Coaches cannot help themselves because they only want what is best for their teams and that means putting your most talented players on even if it means you cause them some discomfort. Sometimes players need to decide how they want to play the game and then adapt that to every position and let the coach decide how they want to use them.

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J
Jon 8 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

I think the main problem here is the structure of both countries make up. They are going to have very similar.. obstacles(not problems). It will just be part of the evolution of their rugby and they’ll need to find a way to make this versatility more advantageous than specialization. I think South Africa are well on the way to that end already, but Ireland are more likely to have a hierarchical approach and move players around the provinces. Sopoaga is going to be more than good enough to look up one of those available positions for more than a few years I believe though. Morgan would definitely be a more long term outlook. Sacha to me has the natural footwork of a second five. Not everything is about winning, if a team has 3 players that want to play 10s just give them all a good go even if its to the detriment of everyone, this is also about dreams of the players, not just the fans. This is exactly how it would be in an amateur club setting. Ultimately some players just aren’t suited to any one position. The example was of a guy that had size and speed, enough pace to burn, power to drive, and speed to kick and pass long, but just not much else when it came to actual rugby (that matched it). New Zealand has it’s own example with Jordie Barrett and probably shows what Reece Hodge could have been if the game in Australia had any administration. Despite the bigger abundance of talent in NZ, Jordie was provided with consistent time as a fullback, before being ushered in as a second five. Possibly this was due to his blood, and another might not have been as fortunate, but it is what it was, a complete contrast to how Hodge was used in Australia, were he could have had any position he wanted. When it comes down to it though, much like these young fellas, it will be about what they want, and I think you’ll find they’ll be like Hodge and just want to be as valuable to the team as they can and play wherever. It’s not like 63 International Cap is a hard thing to live with as a result of that decision!

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