Rugby Union: Leonard believes in rookie revolution

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The Independent Online
First rugby union principles dictate that experience counts for everything in the mysterious underworld of the front row, but England have flown in the face of orthodoxy by throwing two rookies into this Saturday's Test with Australia. Chris Hewett chews the fat with Will Green, Andy Long and the old-stager, Jason Leonard.

"You win nothing with kids," pontificated Alan Hansen, the celebrated know-all from Anfield, in the course of a now infamous Match of the Day pronouncement a couple of seasons back. Embarrassingly for him, Manchester United's pre-pubescent pearls proceeded to win the Premiership title at a canter and in so doing, they dealt a fatal blow to the obsolete "age before talent" philosophy that has crippled England's sporting progress for more decades than anyone cares to remember.

The cricket selectors acknowledged the sea-change by picking a teenager, Ben Hollioake, at Test level last summer. Now the rugby men are at it, naming five youthful new caps for this weekend's intriguing confrontation with the Wallabies. What is more, two of them will perform in the stern, savage arena of the front row - until now, a place for grown-up greybeards rather than juniors bearing the last traces of bum-fluff.

According to the traditionalists - and there are still plenty to be found in the corridors and committee rooms of Twickenham - prop forwards are meant to put in a good seven or eight years at the coalface before even dreaming of a first cap and a few free nights in the Petersham Hotel. Will Green, the 24-year-old tight-head specialist from Wasps, has bucked the trend in only his second full season of top-flight club rugby.

A fast mover, eh? Not as fast as Andy Long, the Bath hooker with whom Green will spend Saturday afternoon in exceedingly close proximity. Long has played six - yes, six - Premiership games in a first-class career stretching all the way back to, um, September. Last season, the outsized 20-year-old was training with the West Country kingpins but playing for Bournemouth, his home club, in the South West Two East division of the Courage Championship. For the uninitiated, that is somewhere down near the earth's core.

"When I got to Bath there were five or six hookers already in situ, so opportunities were obviously going to be few and far between," Long said yesterday. "I was quite happy to train at the Recreation Ground but I needed to play as well, so after discussing my position with the coaches, it was agreed that I should go back home at weekends for a run-around.

"This season, it's been different. Gareth Adams had retired through injury, Graham Dawe had packed in as well and Neil McCarthy had moved to Gloucester. What was more, Federico Mendez was struggling with injury. I knew Mark Regan (the England incumbent and a Lion in South Africa) was going to sign, so competition was bound to remain intense. There was just less of it in the numerical sense.

"The club gave me an early chance and the great thing about Bath is the fact that if you play well enough, you keep your place. Sure, I've played only a handful of big games, but they've been against some of the best hookers Britain has to offer - Phil John, Jonathan Humphreys, Barry Williams - and of course, I'm up against Mark every day of the week in training. Our next meeting should be a real barrel of laughs."

If Long has been fast-tracked - Jacques Villeneuve would have struggled to cover a similar distance at the same speed - Green's prospects have been the subject of enthusiastic debate for rather longer. A career tight- head who joined Wasps from school, he picked up the tricks of the trade from Jeff Probyn, whose unique approach to scrummaging - and, some would say, the wholesale circumvention of rugby's rulebook - frustrated French, Argentinian, New Zealand and Australian front rows for six hugely entertaining years.

"Jeff was pretty cagey when he was still first-choice at Wasps, but he let me into a secret or two after packing it in," recalled Green. "I wouldn't say I expected to get the nod for this match, even though I've been part of the national set-up for a while, but now it's happened, I'm looking forward to getting stuck in. Scrummaging is a key phase now and that should be fine by any prop. You have to love the set-pieces because it's where you earn your corn."

No one loves the eyeball-to-eyeball physicality of the scrum more than Jason Leonard, capped 55 times and very much the main man in the eyes of his youthful confreres. On the face of it, the 18-stone Harlequin will have his work cut out against the Wallabies. Not only must he nurse the new boys through their ordeal, but do so while reacquainting himself with the peculiar dynamics of life on the loose-head side of the front row - a position he has not filled under Test conditions since 1995. No problem, insisted Jase as he introduced himself to his latest partners at Roehampton yesterday.

"I consider myself a loose-head prop first and foremost, so I'm glad to be back there. Anyway, Will deserves the tight-head spot the way he's been playing. What will I say to the two of them on Saturday? I'll have a quiet word, I suppose, but I want them to go out and play their natural games. They don't need me to hold their hands; they've been selected and that's good enough for me.

"My only advice will be: `Get out there and bust a gut. Don't save anything for the last 10 minutes because a Test goes so quickly you'll miss it. Run until you drop and scrummage until your shoulders fall off.' Above all, they should enjoy the experience. For all my years in the team, I'm really excited about Saturday. If I'm right up for it, they must be feeling fantastic."

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