RUGBY UNION: Rowntree apologises for his `crime'

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S FORTHCOMING World Cup qualifiers are almost entirely meaningless; their so-called match with the Netherlands is likely to breach the Trades Descriptions Act and the tournament organisers have already massaged the draw to ensure the red roses play their pool games at Twickenham, regardless of the outcome of the tussle with Italy at Huddersfield on 22 November.

But, as far as the piano shifters of the front row are concerned, the stakes are higher than at any point since the run-up to last year's Lions tour of South Africa. Both prop positions are there for the taking and although Clive Woodward, the national coach, insists that his back row and wing quandaries are the ones keeping him awake at night, he knows full well that the sharp end requires his most urgent attention. With three tight heads and a pair of loose heads firmly in the frame for the two starting places against the Dutch, it is perfectly possible that England will field their fifth different prop partnership in the space of a calendar year.

This time last month Graham Rowntree, of Leicester, was odds-on favourite to retain the No 1 shirt after his blood-and-guts contribution to the summer tour of the southern hemisphere. He, however, dropped himself in the smelly stuff by playing injured in a Premiership game at Saracens a little over a fortnight ago - a flawed piece of thinking that left Woodward flabbergasted.

"I've had some heavy words with Graham," admitted Woodward during yesterday's squad session at Roehampton. "He put himself right back in contention with his efforts during the summer, but almost blew it all with 30 minutes of stupidity at Vicarage Road. It was a bad call on his part, he's apologised and I'm not the sort to bear a grudge. But it happened and I have to stress that all of us, players included, need to be totally professional about this."

Rowntree, a thoroughly honest sort, openly admitted to his crime of passion. "Saracens was such a big game for the whole club and I was desperate to play some sort of part, even if I was restricted to coming off the bench for half an hour," he said. "I got it wrong, I know that, and it won't happen again. Thankfully, my knee is very nearly 100 per cent and I'm hopeful of playing at West Hartlepool this weekend. I'm not making any promises, mind you, not even to myself."

If Rowntree fails to convince Woodward of his fitness in good time to face the whipping boys from Amsterdam, Jason Leonard will resume his record- breaking career on the left of the front row. Who joins him on the far side of the hooker is anyone's guess; if the neck condition hindering Phil Vickery, the incumbent tight head from Gloucester, prevents him reaching the stalls, there will be a two-horse race between Leicester's Darren Garforth and Will Green of Wasps.

Both men are enjoying a purple patch. Garforth was a central figure, not to say a try-scoring one, in Leicester's demolition of Richmond at Welford Road on Saturday while Green coped unusually comfortably with the challenge of Roberto Grau, Saracens' back-breaking Argentinian scrummager, at Vicarage Road 24 hours later.

"Will has a bandwagon of support going for him at the moment but I've been very encouraged by the way a number of props have performed recently," said Woodward. "The Premiership has a quality feel to it at the moment. The ante is going up all the time."

One thing the coach has decided is the strength of the side he will field against the Dutch. "I'll pick the best 15," he confirmed. "It's a World Cup game and they are an unknown quantity. We'll treat it the same as any other Test."

The French Rugby Federation last night said it would take a mediating role in attempting to get English clubs to return to a revamped European Cup next season, provided their English counterparts agree. The move follows meeting of organisers European Rugby Cup Ltd in Dublin last week.

London Scottish have fined their second-row forward Mick Watson after he pushed fourth official, Andy Malpas, during the Allied Dunbar Premiership game at Gloucester.