Rugby Union: Revitalised Leonard the leader of the pack

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The Independent Online
The England coach, Jack Rowell, may be far from confident about his goal-kicking options as he prepares his side for this weekend's international opener with Italy - you might say he is having kittens over Mike Catt - but at least he has his front row sorted out.

That is just as well, given the fact that the Argentinians are now in town.

Rowell gave his squad a full afternoon's work-out at Bisham Abbey yesterday and finished the session by declaring Mark Regan, his hooker, fully recovered from a worrying thumb injury and naming Jason Leonard, his tight-head prop, as de facto vice-captain. The popular Harlequin wins his 50th cap against the Italians and will mark the occasion by leading the pack.

"Jason is a key man, a lead singer in the group," Rowell said. "At 28 he is still young and getting better. He's gone up a gear since last season, has done great things at Quins since taking over as captain and if anything should happen to Phil de Glanville against Italy, he will take over."

Leonard has earned his rewards the hard way. He finished the 1992 Five Nations campaign in agony - indeed, he could not bind in the last few scrums against Wales on Grand Slam day at Twickenham - and serious neck problems were diagnosed immediately after that match. His recovery was quick and complete, however, and he has since proved himself a world-class performer on both sides of the front row.

The Italians are likely to find him at something approaching his best on Saturday but Leonard and the rest of the England tight forwards are fully aware that the real questions will be asked by the Argentinians on 14 December. Even though they arrived in London yesterday without a single member of the outstanding front row from last year's World Cup - Mattias Corral is living in America, Patricio Noriega is playing his rugby in Australia and the best of the lot, Federico Mendez, is about to join Bath - they did unveil a real hard nut in the shape of their new technical adviser, Alex "Grizz" Wyllie.

The former New Zealand wing-forward and national coach has worked with the Pumas before and believes Argentina, for all their amateur status in a professional world, will pose their now traditional problems in the forward exchanges.

Unfortunately for the tourists, the endless wrangle between the Rugby Football Union and its leading clubs has ensured that their programme is nowhere near as demanding as originally intended. The London Division has been reduced to picking a side of Third Division standard or worse for the opener at Twickenham tomorrow and the South-west are in a similar predicament. Only the North will pick from strength.

"We knew of the problems, and offered to shorten the tour," the Argentinian manager, Fernando Conde, said. "The RFU decided to stay with the programme, however. We are not disappointed. The Test next month will be against England's best side and that is what matters to us."