I never defined myself as a sportsman or a pilot

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

For all you rugby fans out there who are feeling a little forlorn following England’s result in the rugby this past weekend, I have something that will cheer you up.

This edition’s interview features England and British and Irish Lion legend, Tony Underwood. Along with his brother, Rory, the Underwoods took the rugby world by storm in the 1980s and 1990s.

As usual though, we shall go right back to where it all began for Tony.

His father was English and in the merchant navy and, with his engineering background, ended up working as an expat in Malaysia. Tony’s Mum was his personal assistant and of Chinese descent.

They had four children together: Rory, Gary who Tony describes as the talented one – just not quite as quick! – then Tony and then younger sister Wendy.

“We had an idyllic childhood with holidays on beautiful beaches or up in the cool mountain jungle – and the food! – I could work for the Malaysian tourism department!

‘Lots of football –- not an odd-shaped ball in sight!”

Sadly though, Tony didn’t see a lot of his father when he was growing up as he unfortunately passed away when he was just 13.

“My mother was therefore a strong influence in my life. Mum meant everything to all of us – and still does.

‘I grew up feeling that it’s everybody’s responsibility to be sensitive to other people’s feelings and be aware of others’ needs. I was taught to never let prejudice blind us. Beauty is in everyone and the best people make a point of seeing it.

‘I have always been helped by the instruction to be seen and not heard. It meant I turned into a pretty good listener!”

Like most of us in our adolescence, Tony liked to dream of what life might have in store for him, especially after he came to live in the UK.

“No obvious path emerged. I’m sure at one stage I pretended to be Bruce Lee!

‘I had no burning ambitions, and certainly no inclination to pick up a ball and start running with it and there was no point anyway as rugby was amateur and wasn’t available as a career.

‘I was content to just cherish the love and support of family. When you have everything you need and are surrounded by calm and kindness, there never seemed any need to consider what was around the corner and whether it was likely to be better. There was definitely a sense of naïve optimism that I would gravitate towards something.”

Despite it not necessarily being on his mind to pursue, sport, and rugby particularly, came quite naturally to him. Like it always seems to do with the most athletic ones amongst us: “It wasn’t specifically a love of playing rugby, it was playing any team sport with my school mates, whether it was rugby or cricket. I played a bit of squash, swam and some athletics but it didn’t give me anywhere near the same enjoyment.

‘I definitely enjoyed being able to do something well that came to me so naturally. Loved running. Loved being outdoors.

‘My first experience of rugby was at prep school. Rory was six years older and already playing at a senior level. Then as Rory moved up through the ranks, I got pulled along in his slipstream.”

It wouldn’t be long until his famous career would take off.

“Before too long I was also pulling on an England Schools’ shirt alongside the likes of Martin Johnson and Neil Back, then a Leicester Tigers shirt and then I was lucky enough to earn a ‘Blue’ at Cambridge because of rugby.”

His first taste of international rugby would come against one of the most formidable teams there has ever been, as he was selected for the Barbarians against New Zealand.

“In the 1980s, the Barbarians selected one uncapped player and I got the call. I’d been going to the Hong Kong 7s and my speed and elusive running had got me noticed.

‘There is no better way to step onto the big international stage than against the All Blacks. I was only 20 and it was nerve wracking to take the field with such a talented group of players, but hugely exciting.

‘It was a huge adrenalin rush to play in front of a packed Twickenham myself, having been going for a few years now to watch Rory. Gave it my best shot and played well enough to instil in me the belief that I could actually do this at the highest level. In fact, legendary All Black Buck Shelford was reported as saying that if I’d been a Kiwi I’d have been pulling on a black shirt.”

It wouldn’t be long before he would be pulling on the England shirt once more, but this time for the full international men’s team.

“Just after that ’89 Baa Baas game I was selected for an England squad, but I then broke my jaw in a trial game and then picked up a bad knee injury which required an operation. So by the time I got my first cap it was a great feeling but almost a relief as I had been knocking on the door for quite a while. Sadly, Rory had just ‘retired’ so unfortunately I wasn’t playing with him. It was a forgettable, dull game with not much to do. And it was at Wembley rather than Twickenham.”

Rory would soon come back out of retirement, giving the two brothers an opportunity to play together – the first brothers to do so since the 1930s – against South Africa at the Home of Rugby – Twickenham.

“Rory, as I said, had just retired but had changed his mind and made himself available again. Having not played that well it was me that got dropped to make way for his return the following week against South Africa.

‘A few days before the game though, Ian Hunter, who was playing on the other wing, injured himself in a football knockabout. A late call and then a mad dash down to SW London meant that there was not a lot of time to consider the magnitude of being about to be the first brothers to play together for England for over 50 years.

‘Being six years behind Rory and having spent so many years watching his rise to stardom, should have given me all the incentive I needed to try and emulate or even exceed his achievements. But I never felt a burning need to do so. It never felt like my destiny and yet I was always tremendously proud and honoured to be following Rory. He will always be my ‘koko’, Chinese for elder brother.

‘Both my elder brothers are people who I always look up to and respect. It has never been a case of trying to compare myself to them, or be better than them. They’re always better than me and my job is only to be the best version of me that I can be. I think that attitude has stood me in good stead during my life.

‘When the day came for us to play together, I think the family and the newspapers felt the sense of occasion more than either of us. You’re encouraged to get into the ‘zone’ and stay there so I don’t think either of us ever stepped back from it and said wow! It’s not lost on me now that he remains one of the sport’s icons and most prolific try scorers – and I’m very proud of what he’s achieved.”

1995 was one of Tony’s most notable years as a rugby player. I started off by asking him about his memories of the Five Nations tournament, which took place at the beginning of the year.

“England were Grand Slam contenders since the mid to late 80s and under Geoff Cooke’s management and Will Carling’s leadership they really blossomed and so the early 90s were stand-out years for the England team. Scotland were also in contention for a Grand Slam in ’95 but the strength and depth of our squad and the winning culture that we’d been able to stitch into everything we did, left us feeling invincible.

‘Rory and I scored 7 of the 9 tries scored during that ’95 campaign, so it was a particularly special time for Mum; who by now had become notorious for her one-woman Mexican waves at Twickenham which earned her more publicity than Rory and me combined!”

England were Five Nations champions and about to head off to the pinnacle of every sport: the World Cup.

“We were understandably full of confidence on the back of such a big season in the Five Nations and we travelled to South Africa as one of the teams to beat.

‘For me, it was really exciting. A chance to take on the world’s best and needless to say, that included the southern hemisphere teams who were ready and waiting for us!”

It was in the quarter-finals vs the old enemy of Australia that you could argue was when Tony really reached his absolute zenith as a player for England, scoring one of the all-time great tries in world rugby.

“I remember every moment as if it was yesterday – and not just because the try in the quarter final against Australia is currently being replayed again and again within the promotional trailers being produced for my new coaching business.

‘I remember it because there was a long way to go when I got the ball, against some very quick opponents and I could definitely feel the form deserting me once I’d run about 40m. Damian Smith my opponent is a big man and it was only at the last moment that I knew I was in. My favourite moment was Jerry Guscott’s face after I scored.

‘I loved that I was able to play a significant role in helping us to beat the reigning world champions. We were absolutely euphoric – and in fact had a couple of days of rest and recuperation afterwards when in fact the history books suggest we should probably have locked ourselves away in a team room for the 48 hours and really studied how we were going to beat the All Blacks – and of course Jonah Lomu, in the following week’s semi.

‘The semi against New Zealand is enshrined in rugby lore – and so it should be. The world got its first real glimpse of a 19st, 6ft 5in, 25 year-old who was to go on and transcend not only rugby, but global sport.

‘For me it was a life defining moment. Prior to that showdown I was one of the game’s most elusive runners. Jonah dominated the game, like many he would go on to do, and personally I was tossed around like a plaything and 80 minutes later I walked off the pitch having been emasculated by the young Jonah on his way to superstar status.”

From the high of the quarter-final, sadly in sport it is never long before you find yourself in a bit of a rut that you then have to try and climb out of.

“I was dropped for the next game in a third place playoff game against France and to compound matters I had further knee surgery.

‘I needed to dig deep and show a great degree of resilience to build myself back up physically as well as mentally. But not just for that moment in time, but right up until today.

‘I’m forever linked to that day and people don’t let me forget it! I have had to cope with a continual reminder that I own a story about crushing defeat and humiliation. It’s a belief system that allowed me to not just get back into an England jersey again but also to get myself on my second Lions’ tour and get a Lions’ cap too. It’s the belief system that lies at the heart of the resilience programme that I share with people in the work I do today.”

For a rugby player, second only to representing your country and, hopefully, with a few trophies along the way, the pinnacle is undoubtedly being picked to play for the British and Irish Lions on one of the Southern Hemisphere tours. Tony earned the honour as he was called-up to the squad for the tour of South Africa in 1997.

“This was a triumph for resilience. Especially as I hadn’t been considered in any of the provisional squads that had been announced leading up to the tour. Simon Geoghegan had the misfortune of not being fit enough to go and once again I was the beneficiary of someone else’s bad luck.

‘But I made the most of it and went on to play some of my best rugby on that tour and played a part, as the whole of that squad did, towards a successful series win.

‘I was picked in the third test to win my only cap for the Lions. Something I treasure as a symbol of that resilience.”

The tour has gone down in infamy, as a result of winning the series but also because of the fly on the wall moments that everyone could experience in the ‘Living with the Lions’ video.

“To me it was a tremendous example of what it takes to get a team culture right. It takes a whole squad or team to be together, not just the starting XV. And I think whether you’re in sport or in business there is so much to learn from that group.”

The following year would be Tony’s final of international rugby. I asked him how he came to make one of the toughest decisions any sportsperson can make: to call it a day.

“On the flight back from the Lions tour I spent some time on the flight deck and was suddenly inspired that flying might be something I would consider post rugby.

‘I was playing my club rugby now as a professional in my beloved north east for the Newcastle Falcons; whose ground sat next door to a flying school.

‘I explored options for becoming a commercial pilot straight away and realised that I had a new calling and started my journey towards getting a professional pilot’s licence.

‘One of my first ‘passengers’ after I went solo was team-mate and friend Inga Tuigamala. The plane didn’t behave quite the same with him next to me as it did with my 10 stone instructor!”

The plan was in motion for his post-rugby life. But the ’98 Autumn tests against Australia and South Africa turned out to be his last two caps, but he had no idea at the time.

“I had, in the two years previous, become well aware that injuries, and age, would soon take their toll and my mindset was definitely much more attuned to soaking in the atmosphere. Throughout ’99 my eyes were definitely turning towards the skies.

‘I’d helped the Falcons rise from the bottom of the second division to win the premiership and had reached the point where I wasn’t sure what else there was to achieve. Plus 30 was beginning to be a bit old to start a career in aviation.

‘The training required to get your professional pilot’s licence is very demanding, so I asked for a meeting with Rob Andrew who was Director of Rugby at my club Newcastle Falcons and asked if my involvement could be scaled back to allow me some time off.

‘We played Sale at home at the weekend and I had played ok and scored a couple of tries. Nothing therefore had prepared me when he suggested that I should scale back completely in favour of a non-playing role helping to promote the club and that I should instead quit!

‘I walked out of that room and never played again. My life had definitely turned upside down again!”

So, from the land to the sky – literally. I took the opportunity to ask Tony about how he took to such a dramatic career change:

“Flying is a great career, but the truth is that if you love getting in a cockpit and launching yourself about the skies then commercial aviation is obviously not going to completely fulfil you.

‘The passengers don’t want any of that, they just want a smooth and timely ride from A to B.

‘So those early days in small propellor training aircraft were the most fun. Flying over the Northumbrian coastline and countryside and over my mum’s house in Barnard Castle was a great thrill. As was the first solo flight. Definitely a mixture of sheer terror as well though!

‘I gained my licence in May 2000 and in September got a massive break and secured my first commercial seat in the front of a shiny Boeing 737 with EasyJet. In 2006 I moved on to my dream job to fly long haul with Virgin.

‘However, the economic crisis of 2008 created a huge setback in my career advancement there so it was with great reluctance that I left there in 2013 to join Emirates and take my family to live in Dubai.

‘I had the great privilege of going on to be a captain flying the magnificent A380 all around the world. It was extremely gratifying to go on and reach the top of a second career but unlike with rugby, it just became what I did.

‘I never felt as fulfilled in my flying career as I had been playing rugby or indeed playing any team sport including playing with my mates in the school 1st XI cricket team. For two reasons. Performance in aviation is understandably limited by the obvious need to satisfy safety requirements. You obviously cannot push the boundaries in an aeroplane as your actions are inherently curtailed by the need to carry out your role as safely and efficiently as possible. Secondly and more importantly I missed the team environment and camaraderie of sharing a unity of purpose in that search for excellent human performance. I would attempt to engender this in the short time I would be together with my crew. I would get some way towards this goal, then we’d be back in Dubai and we would be going our separate ways. A few days later I’d be assembled together with a completely different crew and have to go through the process again and again and again.”

And on that note, we have come full circle in our interview, which I ended by asking Tony about his life now, reflecting back. You couldn’t have asked for a more satisfying philosophical answer:

“I have definitely benefited from never feeling defined by being a sportsman or a pilot. It meant I was able to move on from being a rugby ‘star’ and now from being an A380 captain. Wherever I am is where I want to be. I just have to get on with it and try to be the best version of myself I can be.

‘It is a version of myself that is true to my need to be in a team, searching to be the best it can be whilst helping others to be the best they can be. There is a great deal of fulfilment and purpose in that, just as there was in all the best teams I have ever been involved with.

‘Along with my colleagues at Wordplay, we have lots to share at a time when people need lots of help. Not least and including SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity.

‘A great, great friend is the wonderful Clive Richards who helps to promote the charity’s amazing work in supporting service personnel here in Devon.

‘My new business, Wordplay, is now helping SSAFA by delivering the Resilience programme to those who need support and guidance to meet life’s challenges in such a changing world. It’s seldom been as necessary as it is today to help people learn effective ways of coping with change and upheaval in their lives.”

People are going through a massively challenging time at the moment and if we can in some way help to alleviate that, then that would be an apt goal for the newly titled Ambassador for Devon SSAFA – Tony Underwood. Not bad for a little Malaysian mummy’s boy!

SSAFA is the UK’s oldest military charity and helps to improve the lives of our deserving military personnel in need. If you would like to help in any way please call 01392 254611. Or if you’d like to donate £5 please text Salute to 70085. Your call will cost the donation amount plus a standard network call charge.

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