Rowntree and Moody lift Leicester and Lions

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The whole of Leicester may have spent yesterday wondering about the nature of their team's starting line-up for this weekend's Premiership final with Wasps at Twickenham - whether Sam Vesty or Austin Healey would get the nod in the back three, whether Ben Kay would be named alongside Martin Johnson in the second row, whether Louis Deacon would be asked to play out of position on the blind-side flank. Sir Clive Woodward, on the other hand, was interested in something else; namely, the precise make-up of the Tigers' replacement bench.

The whole of Leicester may have spent yesterday wondering about the nature of their team's starting line-up for this weekend's Premiership final with Wasps at Twickenham - whether Sam Vesty or Austin Healey would get the nod in the back three, whether Ben Kay would be named alongside Martin Johnson in the second row, whether Louis Deacon would be asked to play out of position on the blind-side flank. Sir Clive Woodward, on the other hand, was interested in something else; namely, the precise make-up of the Tigers' replacement bench.

He is none the wiser today, for the Midlanders have still to settle on seven substitutes from 10 candidates, but the World Cup-winning coach must feel mightily pleased with life all the same. Graham Rowntree and Lewis Moody, two of the forwards he chose for this summer's British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand, have recovered sufficiently from the knee injuries they suffered during last month's Heineken Cup semi-final defeat by Toulouse to be included in the selectorial mix. For this, Woodward will be eternally grateful.

"Both Graham and Lewis will have fitness tests before the weekend, and if they come through, I hope they will play some part," said John Wells, the Leicester coach, who will end a 23-year association with the club on Saturday evening to take up a job with the Rugby Football Union's national academy.

"They've done some contact work, but haven't played a full part in training. I couldn't pick them in the starting line-up on that basis, but there is a possibility they'll be on the bench."

This must have been music to Woodward's ears. In the immediate aftermath of the Toulouse misadventure, there was considerable concern over Moody's chances of making the Lions tour, and an even darker cloud hanging over Rowntree's immediate future. The Lions might just about have coped with the former's absence, but Rowntree is likely to be a key figure among a front-row contingent that has more style than substance about it.

Happily, Rowntree sounded every bit as optimistic as Wells, if not more so. "I'm delighted with my progress," he said. "I'm almost there."

Just as Leicester are almost there, in terms of reclaiming a title they last held in 2002. But Wells recognises the potential for a pratfall against a Wasps side well versed in the art of the late-season, blind-side run to the championship. The Londoners finished second in the league in 2003 before hammering the runaway regular-season winners Gloucester in the final.

Last year, they did the same thing to Bath. Wells is not a supporter of the play-off system - who in his right mind would support it? - but he spurned the opportunity to bleat about the injustice of it all yesterday.

"Wasps are very comfortable with the play-offs," said the coach, who selected Vesty in preference to Healey and named both Kay and Deacon in his side, at lock and blind side respectively. "We, on the other hand, made a beeline for the top spot right from the start of the season. To be brutally honest, we remain a club who prefer the first-past-the-post system, and we do feel we should be recognised as champions.

"There again, we've always known that this would not be the case. Yes, there is a degree of satisfaction in having finished top, because it was an objective we set ourselves and achieved. But we also understand that the job has not been completed."

Rather like Wells and Johnson, who plays his last game for Leicester this weekend, Neil Back will be in valedictory mood. Fifteen years a Tiger, he has only this game and the Lions tour left to him.

"I think the world of this club," he said. "When Bob Dwyer [the Australian who coached at Welford Road between 1996 and 1998] moved to Bristol, he tried to get me to join him. I said it would take an extortionate amount of money to pull me away, so he came up with an extortionate amount of money. The fact that even that wasn't enough tells you what I feel about Leicester."

Comments