Rugby Union: Rogers makes up for lost time

Five Nations' Championship: Welsh prop who arrived late on scene is relishing battle with England at Wembley on Sunday
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The Independent Online
JUST AS it all starts in the front row, it has all started for Peter Rogers, the Kent-born, Transvaal-trained, London Irish-contracted polyglot prop who may just be the best loose head to shore up the Welsh scrum since those rival Test Lions, Clive Williams and Ian Stephens, were playing tug-of-war with the No 1 shirt almost two decades ago. If a single Five Nations outing, albeit in Paris against a pug-ugly French threesome with fire in their bellies, does not add up to much in the experience department, it has not prevented animated talk of a "new cornerstone" on the far side of the Severn.

Legend has it that the Welsh selectors of old could whistle down the nearest mineshaft and rustle up any number of international-class tight forwards, but they would not have found this particular sharp-ender hacking away at the coalface with a pick in one hand and a Davy lamp on his forehead. Rogers was born 30 years ago in the garden of England - in Maidstone, to be precise - and despite his West Walian father and a significant amount of time spent studying in Llandovery and Pontypridd, the possibility of a sporting future amongst the Red Dragonhood did not occur to him until this time last year.

He was living in Johannesburg at that point, having decided to continue his accountancy studies in the company of a few college friends who happened to be living on the high veldt.

"I hadn't been a rugby-mad teenager or anything like that - my father may have been born just outside Llanelli, but he was no fanatic - although looking back, I suppose it was always the sport I took more seriously than any other," he recalled this week as the Welsh squad prepared for this Sunday's climactic meeting with England in the shadow of the Wembley towers. "But once I started turning out for Johannesburg Pirates, who were a very ambitious club, it began to take off for me."

Indeed, it took off with such velocity that Ray Mordt, one of the great Springbok wings of the post-war era and the scorer of a famous hat-trick of tries against the All Blacks in 1981, decided to fast-track this unknown Englishman - Welshness had not yet occurred to Rogers, or anyone else for that matter - into the Transvaal provincial set-up. "It went better than I could have hoped; I played 10 or 11 consecutive games for the Golden Lions last year, enjoyed a few run-outs at Ellis Park and had just started negotiating a move to Gauteng Falcons when London Irish got in touch. I think Dick Best was looking to recruit South African players and mine was one of the names that cropped up."

Best was not alone in fastening on to Rogers' potential as a thoroughly modern, mobile, ball-handling scrummager; the Welsh national side were also in South Africa at the time and while a 96-point shafting in the Pretoria Test match left them contemplating a wasted journey, they at least managed to set some positive wheels in motion on the recruitment front. By last July Rogers had surfaced with the Irish at Sunbury-on-Thames. It would not be long before Graham Henry, newly appointed as Welsh coach, picked up the phone.

"Unfortunately, my knee ligaments went during an early-season Premiership game against Richmond," said Rogers. "Graham had just named me in his squad for the autumn internationals and was actually there at the ground to watch me play. It was not the best of days, that's for sure; the injury cost me four and a half months of rugby, which was pretty frustrating in the light of everything that was happening."

Ironically enough, it was not until an over-motivated but under-baked Welsh front row found itself on the wrong end of a hiding from their Irish opponents at Wembley in February that Rogers, not even a regular in the London Irish side, received the call to arms.

"I can't honestly say the summons took me by surprise because it was something I'd been working towards since arriving back in Britain. But I'd never played against a French side at any level of rugby, so the Paris experience was one that will always stay with me. I'd played in big stadia before - they don't come much bigger than Ellis Park - but it was a fantastic buzz to play a first international on such an important Five Nations occasion and end up on the winning side."

So how did it go against those bulls of Toulouse, Franck Tournaire and Christian Califano (Rogers was treated to 40 minutes of each as the French selectors tinkered around with their front-row configuration)? "Well, they were physical, I'll admit that much," he said cagily, clearly intent on adhering to the age-old tenets of front-row omerta. "But I'm not sure they did anything unexpected or untoward. It was a fast game and a hard one, but hugely enjoyable.

"I hope to continue enjoying myself for some time to come. I'd say I have three or four years left to me; I may be a late starter at 30, but I've played relatively little top-class rugby and I haven't taken as many bangs, or soaked up quite as much punishment, as most other players of my age." Shades of a Welsh Jeff Probyn, perhaps, or even another Charlie Faulkner? Rogers is not the sort to gild his own lily. "I wouldn't know," he smiled.

A little over a year ago, the Welsh pack slipped into reverse gear and then raised the white flag as the England posted their first ever 60-pointer on the scarlet hordes in a one-sided contest at Twickenham. If they suffer similar indignities on Sunday, neither Rogers nor any other of his new countrymen will find the experience remotely enjoyable, or even stomachable.

The thought of it makes him clam up once more. "I've never played against Darren Garforth or Richard Cockerill so I can't help you on that score," he said. "All I know is that England are the strongest side in the tournament."

Cockerill being Cockerill, he will not hesitate to introduce himself at the first available opportunity, probably via some jibe about Rogers' sudden outbreak of Welshness.

Still, the quiet man from everywhere will take it in his stride; when you spend your time being coached by Dick Best and Graham Henry, your eardrums should be perfectly equipped to handle a high decibel count.

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