Rugby Union: Probyn in it for pure pleasure

Rugby Union: Grizzled veteran of the front row is happy to step into the Tigers' den for the last time
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The Independent Online
THE TIGERS' lair holds few terrors for Jeff Probyn, indeed he is positively looking forward to making the trip to Welford Road tomorrow with lowly Barking for their Tetley Bitter Cup fourth-round tie against Leicester.

Probyn, the former England prop, has nothing but happy memories of visits to the ground. "I played some of my best rugby at Welford Road with Wasps," explained the 42-year-old, who is now director of rugby at Barking. "I also captained the Barbarians to their first win over Leicester in five years in 1997.

"And then last year I played in the same team as my son Steven in the Dean Richards Testimonial match up there. Steven actually led the team on to the pitch. It was a great moment."

There was another great moment for this grizzled veteran of the front row, who turned tight-head propping into an art - a dark art. After a number of replacements had been made Probyn found himself coming on again for his son. "I got up off the bench," he recalled, "and as I went on to the pitch my son came up to me, stopped, and gave me a kiss. We actually got a round of applause for that."

Barking's visit is a bonus for Probyn. He has decided to start the game and said: "It will be my last chance to get on to the Leicester pitch and it should be a wonderful occasion for us. Although the idea of actually beating Leicester is pure fantasy.

"This is a side of amateurs taking on full-time professionals. If the gulf between Premiership One and Two is big enough, then the one between us in National League Two South - effectively the Fourth Division - and Leicester is vast."

But there is no way Probyn wants to see an end to such apparent mis-matches. The FA Cup it is not, but this competition still allows for a degree of romance in an ever hardening professional world.

"We have won the right to play in this round. It is down to the luck of the draw that we have Leicester, just as Holland had every right to play England in the World Cup qualifier in the autumn," insisted Probyn.

"In every sport you want to measure yourself against the best around. When I played for England we all loved to play against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia because there was a yardstick by which you could assess where you were in terms of ability. Holland earned that right in the World Cup. We have done so by winning through to this point."

He even admitted that he was excited at the prospect of the tie. "It would not have been quite the same if we had been drawn against a club from a lower division. But Leicester are one of the great clubs. It will be a tremendous experience for our players," said Probyn, who won the last of his 37 caps against Ireland in 1993.

"All I want from the team is a good performance. We will lose the game. There is no doubt about that. We would lose it whichever side Leicester selected against us. But I am hoping that my players will provide credible opposition for Leicester and do themselves justice.

"Most of them have never played in a game like this. I think the biggest problem will be that they might freeze, given the intensity of the atmosphere and the size of the crowd.

"I won't be telling them to kill the ball and slow the game down. I will simply tell them to go out and enjoy themselves and to take as much as they can from this particular occasion."

That is just what Gary Usher, a gas board fitter, intends to do. He will be packing down on the other side of the front row from Probyn and he cannot wait for the confrontation with Leicester's renowned ABC club - Graham Rowntree, Richard Cockerill and Darren Garforth, England players all.

"I feel good about it," said Usher, who has been with Barking for 20 years, since he was 15 and turning out for the Colts. "Saturday can't come quick enough. We'll give them a hell of a first half because our adrenaline levels will be high. We'll be fired up. But ultimately their fitness is going to tell. We just want to give them a good game and not let ourselves down."

The East London club, which was founded in 1930 as Park Modern Old Boys, is the alma mater of England's most-capped prop Jason Leonard, who has made 67 appearances, so they must know a thing or two.

Indeed Usher was around when Leonard was a downy infant (in front row terms) and just learning his trade. "He was a bit younger than me," said Usher, "but I played in the same team as Jason on and off for two seasons before he joined Saracens. He used to ask me for advice in the early part of his career and he still comes back to the club and for a chat with his old mates."

Kris Chesney, the Saracens wing-cum-lock, is another old boy. They have also won the Essex Cup seven times in nine years. These are no mugs on or off the field. They were originally drawn at home but quickly opted to play in the Tigers' stadium after all the takings will be that much higher.

And up front they know they can draw on the bottomless box of trickery of Probyn. You'd have to be barking mad to expect the underdogs to beat the Tigers. But Leicester will still know they have been in a scrap.

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