Rugby Union: Rowntree back in the rough house

Leicester and England forward emerges from the doldrums to recapture his hunger for the game
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The Independent Online
AT LONG last, a full-blooded rugby occasion. Five disorientating weeks into the most benighted, bedevilled and hopelessly confused domestic season of the fledgling professional era, some 16,000 members of the paying public will make their way to Vicarage Road on Sunday for the opening salvo of what promises to be an epic two-horse Premiership race. Saracens versus Leicester also means Penaud versus Stransky, Bracken versus Healey, Johnson against Grewcock, Hill against Back. Pray God the referee doesn't wreck it.

Players are meant to live for this sort of occasion, yet as recently as eight months ago Graham Rowntree would have shuddered at the very thought of it. He too was benighted, bedevilled and hopelessly confused; out of form, out of favour and out of love with the game on which he had based his livelihood, Leicester's loose-head prop was riddled with self doubt and, as he himself puts it, "in a right old state".

Happily, he has emerged stronger, more ambitious and a whole lot happier for his experience. The demons were vanquished in the unlikely surroundings of Carisbrook and Eden Park, those two great citadels of All Black rugby, during England's summer jaunt around the southern hemisphere, and if that sounds odd in the light of the humiliations suffered by the tourists, it makes perfect sense to Rowntree. "In that environment," he says, "you discover things about yourself. I discovered that in spite of it all, I still wanted to play rugby."

Rowntree's is a cautionary tale, a glimpse of the dark side of professionalism and a timely reminder that playing games for money is not all wine, roses and lazy afternoons in the sauna. It proves that contrary to popular assumption, it is indeed possible for a sportsman to be unhappy in his work, to find himself in the throes of a career crisis like any bored civil servant or harassed teacher.

Eighteen months ago, Rowntree was at the top of the tree and enjoying the view. An automatic choice in Jack Rowell's England front row, he was one of umpteen Leicester players picked for the Lions tour of South Africa and was a cast iron certainty to make the Test side. Then came the fall. Tom Smith, the unfancied Scottish prop, caught the eye of the Lions selectors and beat his Sassenach rival to the Springbok punch. It was the start of a downward spiral that ended somewhere near the earth's core.

"I went pretty low," he admits. "The key to any top-level sport, be it amateur or professional, is confidence, the self-belief that yes, you can do whatever it is you do better than the next guy and the guy after that. When that confidence goes, your enjoyment goes with it. And believe me, I stopped enjoying rugby. It became a chore - the training, the playing, the whole thing.

"There is, though, one big difference between playing for fun and playing for a living. Before professionalism, I had other things in my life. I had a good job as an insurance broker and that gave me a get-out, a life away from rugby. This time, though, there was nowhere to turn, nothing else on offer. I was training and playing only because I had to and when you boil it all down, you can't carry on like that. There's no point."

Salvation came in the form of the most toxic of poisoned chalices: selection for England's positively lunatic adventure south of the equator. "It was down to brass tacks, wasn't it? Shit or bust. Everyone knew it would be a pretty thankless task, that no one gave us a prayer, that the itinerary was tougher than any we had previously undertaken. And sure enough, we copped it in the first game against Australia. Seventy-six points, humiliation all round. Yet we actually scrummaged pretty well that night and as a result, I felt a buzz about the matches ahead. The prospect of us standing together and facing the flak invigorated me."

Another thing that appeared to invigorate him was the right boot of Ian Jones, the All Black lock, who stamped on Rowntree's face during the early stages of a rough-house Test in Dunedin. After some brisk running repairs, he returned to the fray and produced an absolute stormer. Here was catharsis writ large, a glorious confirmation that the bad times were behind him.

"Actually, I feel quite embarrassed about the Jones business. He caught me under the eye and as soon as it happened, the blood spurted into my face and all I could see was red. I ran into the medical room thinking: `Bloody hell, what's happened here?' And what did they do? Wiped my eye, put in two stitches and told me to get back out there. Two stitches! No self-respecting prop makes a fuss about two stitches, but there was a hell of a kerfuffle about it in the press.

"Looking back, though, I have really fond memories of that tour, despite the results. In a funny way, it was rugby at its best - the hard work, the sense of physical challenge, the camaraderie. When we got to New Zealand I looked around at people like Ben Clarke, Richard Cockerill and Dave Sims, all of whom were happy to be there and willing to give it everything. They were fantastic, totally inspirational."

Four months on, Rowntree is firmly in Clive Woodward's plans as the national coach begins to build towards next year's World Cup in Wales. A set of strained knee ligaments prevented him from taking a full part in England's training session at Roehampton yesterday, but the raw enthusiasm was there for all to see. "If I'd been injured this time last year, I might have been relieved," he admits. "Right now, I'm steaming about it."

He will be more than steaming if he fails to recover in time for this weekend's set-to at Watford, where the unique scrummaging skills of Roberto Grau and, more specifically, Paul Wallace, await him. "God, I hope I'm fit. We had some unholy scraps with Saracens last year - we were the only side to beat them at Vicarage Road - I've no doubt this will be one of the games of the season.

"It's a prop forward's dream, because an unorthodox player like Paul presents a very precise technical challenge. We front-rowers aren't meant to be intellectual types, but we'll actually spend a lot of time as a threesome working out ways of dealing with him. It's a thinking man's game up front, you know."

Yes. And just at the moment, Graham Rowntree thinks as much of the game as it thinks of him. It is good to have him back.