Leicester pair prepare to seize unexpected opportunity

Steve Bale on England's Tigers entering the pack, Graham Rowntree (left) and Neil Back (right)
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The Independent Online
As forward play is supposedly a jungle, it is appropriate that eight Pumas have forced England to turn to two Tigers to deliver theirs from the mediocrity of their World Cup opening.

It was not part of the Jack Rowell master-plan for Graham Rowntree and Neil Back, leading members of Leicester's champion pack, to figure so prominently but after the unlikely embarrassment of being outplayed by the Argentine pack the manager has been forced to look at unexpected alternatives.

Hence the inclusion of Rowntree at prop and Back at flanker in the side who continue Group B against Italy at King's Park this evening is a vastly significant step away from the recent verities that saw England to the Grand Slam. They are England's insurance policy and, as it happens, both work in insurance.

Rowntree has to stabilise an unsteady scrum even at the expense of Victor Ubogu's barnstorming mobility. Back has to get to the loose ball even at the expense of adulterating the power on which England's back-row running has been based.

If they succeed it is clear that either or both - but certainly Rowntree - could go all the way to the final if England made it. Never mind that Jason Leonard dislikes being moved from loose-head prop to tight head; with Ubogu in eclipse and Rowntree productive in the loose as well, the England front row has finally taken on the formation Rowell wanted to see before Christmas.

Having sat on the bench 14 times and taken the field once, as a temporary replacement during England's win over Scotland in March, Rowntree, just 24, is thinking no further than this one match, even though the way is now open for him to claim an enduring place in the team.

"To be honest I wouldn't look any further than Wednesday at 5 o'clock," he said. "Jason has a lot of caps and he won't take this too well but he will understand that this is my chance and if it goes quite well he may even be happy there. The pressure is on us but if we do well it will be hailed as a great performance by the lads who've come in."

One of Rowntree's advantages is that he shares the same home town, Hartlepool, as Rowell, though he lived in Leicestershire from an early age and has played for Leicester since he was 19. He may lack Ubogu's explosive power but he is a ball-playing prop and Rowell clearly considers he can do better than Ubogu in the darker recesses of the scrummage.

"Being on the bench, you have to be entirely comfortable with what is going on on the field and always be as ready as if you are going to have to play," Rowntree said. "But I haven't found it a comfortable role being among the replacements: it's immensely frustrating to go through the whole build-up before an international and the celebrations afterwards without being a direct part of it."

This is not a problem that has confronted Back, 26, who has seldom had to suffer bench duty but won his third cap when he was twice Steve Ojomoh's temporary substitute during the Argentine match. He was on the field for all of five minutes but that was enough for him to make some tackles and, more especially, provide England with a presence at the breakdown that they otherwise lacked.

Even so, Back is yet again having to resist the negative selectorial response to his vital statistics, 5ft 10in and 14st. "For me to play well we need to have ball in hand which enables me to retain possession and provide continuity," he said. "Anyone can chase downfield if the ball is being bombed in the air."

It was Back's misfortune that his first two caps, against Scotland and Ireland in 1994, coincided with two England exhibitions as drab and dismal as last Saturday's and he acknowledges that he cannot flourish on his own. "All I can control when I face Italy is my own performance. But I need to play so well that they have to think very hard about me retaining my place.

"When I was chosen for the World Cup squad, I felt the Five Nations XV would go into the first game and if they played well they wouldn't change a winning side." And so it transpired, in the sense that the selection was made and they changed a side whose win was entirely fortuitous. Future selections now depend on a combination of Back himself and Dean Richards's fitness.

Curiously, Back was excluded from last year's England tour of South Africa but King's Park is one place where he has already proved himself, the firm going perfectly accommodating him when England A lost creditably here on the day the seniors were winning the Calcutta Cup.

"I hoped the management looked at more than one game but certainly the game against Natal went well for me and showed how well I can contribute out here in South Africa."

This evening Back will find out the legitimacy of that contention - as well as whether it can also be applied to his fellow-Tiger Rowntree.