Rowntree puts on England-class display for depleted Leicester

Leicester 29 London Irish 19
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The Independent Online

So here they were, the Haves, London Irish, and the Have-Nots, Leicester. What the Exiles had was a full-strength squad from which to select their team for this Zurich Premiership opener, because no Rugby World Cup calls have been made on them.

In contrast, Leicester were without seven players, all forwards, who are going Down Under with England. The Tigers contained a further three English players who wanted to be in Australia, as well as a Samoan who was of a like mind but cannot afford to be there with his countrymen.

So with the Tigers having to call upon youngsters to fill the big boots of their international stars and a trio of dejected rejects who might have been expected to put in below-par performances, it represented a good opportunity for the Irish to add to their two Premiership victories of last season.

Not so. The England discards Graham Rowntree, Ollie Smith and Austin Healey, played with fire, enthusiasm and, at times, fury. The youngsters around them were like rabid dogs chasing every ball and tackling their hearts out.

If they had a weakness it was at the line-out, where they were out-dogged and occasionally mugged. Irish certainly won more ball and grabbed the lions' share of territory, but whether through over confidence or incompetence, contrived to lose possession at critical moments.

Their rate of turnovers would have kept a baker well stocked. Tigers took their time, but once they had got into their stride they proved unbeatable.

Smith, playing on the right wing, scored their opening try after Healey's first touch of the ball - he came on as a 62nd minute replacement for Harry Ellis - had put the fly-half Sam Vesty into space.

Henry Tuilagi scored a muscular second for them, before revealing (like the Wasps hooker Trevor Leota) that he was not going to the World Cup.

"I have not told the Samoan authorities yet," said Tuilagi, the brother of the Welford Road favourite Freddie, who misses the World Cup after undergoing knee surgery. "It was a difficult decision, but I am not going because I want to settle down here with my family. I have been out of contract for five months and I have three children. It would have been my first World Cup, but it just is not possible."

Rowntree, the shock omission from the squad, was a paragon of professionalism during and after the match.

He put in some enormous hits, one of which won him a bottle of champagne and several others which left certain Exiles feeling less than bubbly. But, when he was presented with a chance to hit out at being overlooked for the World Cup, he was the personification of dignity.

"The disappointment only lasted for a couple of days, but initially I was very upset, pretty hurt by it all. I worked out that in the 20 games England had played before the summer warm-up matches I had started in 14 of them, so it was unfortunate, to say the least, to have been left out. But it is all behind me now.

"There are four great props going to Australia - there could have been five - but I still have big ambitions to play for England. It is a competitive squad, that is the nature of it, you have to take it on the chin and play well for your club."

Which he has put into practice at the very first opportunity.

Leicester: Tries Smith, Tuilagi; Cons Stimpson 2; Pens Stimpson 5. London Irish: Try Horak; Con Mapletoft; Pens Mapletoft 4.

Leicester: T Stimpson; O Smith, L Lloyd, D Gibson, J Holtby; S Vesty, H Ellis (A Healey, 62); G Rowntree, G Chuter, R Nebbett (D Morris, 75), L Deacon, B Deacon (H Tuilagi, 69); W Skinner, 80+5), W Johnson (J Hamilton, 58), D Lyle, J Kronfeld (capt).

London Irish: M Horak; P Sackey, G Appleford, N Mordt (B Everitt, 69), J Bishop; M Mapletoft, D Edwards; N Hatley, N Drotske, R Hardwick, R Strudwick (capt), R Casey (K Roche, 64), P Gustard (P Durant, 58-67; P Murphy, 68), C Sheasby, K Dawson.

Referee: T Spreadbury (Keynsham).