Rugby Union: Tigers' trio are letter perfect: Bath face front-row test in Pilkington Cup final. Barrie Fairall reports

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The Independent Online
THIS is a public health warning. Before using the expression, as simple as ABC, take a quick glance over your shoulder. Heaven forbid that you should use it within earshot of the Leicester front row, three Tigers who are out to have a ball in the maul at Twickenham tomorrow.

Rather quaintly, Leicester players wear letters on their shirts rather than numbers, and someone way back decided the first three of the alphabet would do nicely for the boys at the blunt end. But as paid-up members of the front-row union, there is nothing simple about the work undertaken at play by Graham Rowntree, Richard Cockerill and Darren Garforth, least of all against mighty Bath in a Pilkington Cup final.

Leicester's trio of likely lads are exceptionally good, and getting better all the time. Talk of an all-Leicester England front row is premature, but their reputation is growing.

For confirmation, talk to Jeff Probyn, England's most capped prop. 'They are a dynamic front-row unit,' he said. 'Their strength is not as individuals, but collectively they draw from each other and that is always a sign of a good front row.'

Of the three, Rowntree, the loose head, has so far gone the furthest with a place on the England bench. A quietly spoken 23-year-old, the insurance broker comes knocking at 6ft and a shade under 17st.

Rowntree became a Tiger when he was 17 after junior rugby at Nuneaton and has played at every level for England bar the big one. That obvious Tigerish camaraderie? 'Yes, it certainly exists. We all get on very well and socialise together. Richard is a hell of a character and it rubs off on everyone, while Darren is just a real down-to-earth nice guy.'

This will be the trio's second cup final together following last season's win over Harlequins. Referring to last month's league defeat in atrocious conditions at Bath, Rowntree said: 'I'd love to play in blazing hot sunshine and just run and run all day, but although you might say some of the Bath boys are getting on a bit, they're all very competent. Graham Dawe, the hooker, is one of their oldest players, but at fitness testing with England a couple of weeks ago he left everyone behind.'

Rowntree, the level-headed thinker, is generous with his praise and could never be described as being full of self-importance. Quite the reverse. 'I think the Leicester front-five game in general has picked up in the last couple of years since Richard arrived.

'He'll hate me saying this, but he keeps us going even if he is a bit of a pain in training sometimes. He trains like a madman. Everything is always competitive and when he goes on the pitch he's just the same. When Brian Moore of Harlequins and Richard are having a go at each other it's quite funny. You can hardly stop laughing. No one would ever believe Richard is an antiques restorer.'

Enter Cockerill, the French polisher, also 23. 'We're three very similar people,' he said. 'We play the same, think the same and we're very good friends. We're learning all the time. The first season together we came in as unknowns and we couldn't really lose because we were the up and coming front row. But now we've established ourselves we're there to be knocked about.'

Probyn's view? 'Graham Rowntree has done really well this season, but Richard's the guy that pulls their front row together. His personal battle with Graham Dawe will be an important aspect of the final.'

One of Cockerill's jobs has been polishing the England A- team bench. 'But I eventually got on against Italy this season after sitting there for something like 11 times. Then I played for the Emerging Players against Canada and now I've been told to keep fit as a stand-by for the South African tour.' Rowntree, on the other hand, makes the trip.

That leaves Garforth, the tight head. 'He's getting better every year,' Probyn said. 'His greatest asset is mobility. He does the bits and pieces which you don't always see, but he's also good with the ball in his hands and he runs well.' Rowntree agrees: 'His contribution around the pitch is second to none. People have criticised his scrummaging but he's the cornerstone. He won't mind me saying that he's the dad of the three of us.' Well, the self-employed scaffolder is all of 28.

Having tasted the cup final atmosphere together once, Garforth is looking forward to a repeat. 'We've played something like 25 games together since the last cup final,' Garforth said. 'That was brilliant. The best day of my life. It wasn't just the game, it was the whole day. And a nice night out, too, followed by a trip around Leicester in an open-topped bus.' A case of getting from A to B without forgetting C.

(Photograph omitted)

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