Rowntree forgets frustration in quest to transform Tigers

Heineken Cup: Prop discarded by England for World Cup sees chance to lift Leicester's season in competition the club see as their 'holy grail'
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The Independent Online

Old age is not so bad when you consider the alternative, as Leicester have spent the last few months discovering. The alternative in this case is not the inevitable - although the Tigers have been dying on their feet in the Zurich Premiership and are already pushing up the daisies in terms of the Powergen Cup, which they departed in particularly excruciating fashion - but immaturity. Thirteen games into their season, they now see the kindergarten option for the non-starter it was. Alan Hansen once summed it up while talking about Manchester United, the Leicester of football. "In this game," he said, "you win nothing with kids."

Take the Midlanders' worst defeats, 21-point reverses at Gloucester and Leeds, as examples. In those matches, they fielded the following players: Luke Myring, Dan Hipkiss, John Holtby, Michael Holford, James Hamilton, Tom Ryder, Brett Deacon and Will Skinner. Average age? 20. Average experience? Zip. While there is not a poor player among them - some of these youngsters have been preparing for their professional careers for almost a third of their lives - they do not burn holes in the Leicester team sheet. They may be good, but they are not good in the way Martin Johnson and Neil Back are good.

Now the grown-ups are back in town following their World Cup exploits in Australia, the salvage operation can begin. And it starts tomorrow at Welford Road, where Leicester take on the newly formed and unusually confident Gwent Dragons in the second of six Heineken Cup pool games that form the centrepiece of this fragmented campaign. Two years ago, when the Tigers were unquestionably the dominant force in European club rugby, a home match against any Welsh side bar Llanelli would not have cost them a moment's beauty sleep. This weekend, the nervous energy is sparking like a loose power cable.

"We're in must-win territory," admitted Graham Rowntree, the cauliflower-eared prop and sole surviving member of the grand front-row alliance he forged with Richard Cockerill and Darran Garforth (Cockerill is currently serving out time in France with Montferrand; Garforth is repaying a debt of honour to Nuneaton, his sporting alma mater). "We've been here before; it's just that we've arrived earlier than usual, having lost at Stade Français last week. I'm still annoyed about that game. We worked hard for our two tries, while they did bugger all for theirs. We gifted them one, the referee gave them the other with what I can only describe as a pathetic decision. If he doesn't accept that after watching the tape ... well, that's pathetic too.

"So it's absolutely essential that we see off these Gwent boys. They've been talking themselves up all week, and I can't say I blame them. They've looked at our results and convinced themselves they have nothing to fear from us. Well, let 'em come. The Heineken Cup is our holy grail, always has been, and we're right up for this game. I can tell from this week's training, where the abuse has been flying and the scraps have been two a penny. The old bounce is back, I'm happy to report."

It is good to hear Rowntree, one of the game's genuine diamonds, in such bullish mood, for he has walked a difficult road since September, when Clive Woodward swallowed hard and informed him that England would not be requiring his services at the World Cup. As kicks in the teeth go, it was positively Wilkinsonesque: a real siege-gun job, delivered with the cruellest accuracy. Rowntree was hurt, and understandably so. He had started four of the five Six Nations matches that secured a first Grand Slam for the Woodward regime, and had been at the very heart of the great rearguard action in Wellington last June, when six red-rose forwards famously withstood a torrid goal-line assault from a full All Black pack.

Yet the self-indulgences of misery and depression were not available to him, however much Rowntree wanted to disappear into himself and draw the curtains. There were matches to play - hard Premiership matches against teams far less compromised than Leicester by World Cup demands. "I owed it to the club to pull my finger out and be the best I could be," he said. "Call it duty. When I looked around me in the dressing-room, I thought: 'Graham mate, this is down to you.' We'd lost almost an entire pack to England, and I was sitting there with 13 years and 300-plus senior starts behind me. The onus was clearly on me to stand up and be counted, and it concentrated my mind on the matter in hand.

"As it turned out, I didn't exactly set the world on fire with my own performances in those early weeks, when we lost five on the bounce for the first time in league history. We were shite, quite frankly, and I was as shite as most. I'm pretty angry with myself for playing poorly just when I needed to be on top of my game, because I should have been sending out better, more confident signals. Confidence plays a crucial role in professional sport. Throw one youngster into a vastly experienced side, and the security he feels will help him perform at, or even above, his level. Throw half a dozen into a team stripped of its know-how, and they will start looking around for help the moment things go wrong. And when there is nobody there to help them, the wheels come off.

"There again, I was hugely encouraged by our forward performance in a couple of big matches last month. We lost in the cup to Sale after extra time, but the young lads in the pack fronted up really well that day. Then we beat Wasps, who clearly expected to do a job on us. In those games, we started to develop a vigorous, physical style of our own and began to feel good about ourselves as a unit. Maybe that's why the England blokes have taken a little longer than expected to slip back into the system."

Talking of systems, Rowntree still believes he can re-establish himself as part of England's modus operandi. With Trevor Woodman in pole position, David Flatman rediscovering his best form at Bath and Andrew Sheridan being fast-tracked towards international honours by Sale, he knows it will be the devil's own job to force a place in Woodward's squad for the 2004 Six Nations.

"No respect for their elders, these youngsters," he laughed. "But seriously, I think I have a role to play with England. Yes, I was upset at being left out of the World Cup party; yes, I was fed up. But worse things happen in life. I'm older and wiser than I was in 1997, when I came back from the Lions' tour of South Africa in a very bleak mood. Then, I was in two minds whether I wanted to continue with this rugby lark. There was nothing like that this time. I'll have my regrets when I'm sitting at home 20 years from now, and one of them will be missing out on the best thing that's ever happened to English rugby. But I still love what I do. In fact, I'd still like to be doing it in another three or four years."