Woodward demotes Rowntree despite Wellington heroics

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The Independent Online

Graham Rowntree is an uncomplaining sort, one of those front-row stoics who labour long and hard in the darkened recesses of scrum and maul without ever bemoaning their unhappy lot. But even Rowntree must be tempted to ask the Almighty some pertinent questions about the fairness of life, having lost his place in the England side for this weekend's one-off Test against Australia.

An undisputed hero of last Saturday's victory over New Zealand in Wellington - Rowntree was one of the Magnificent Six who resisted the eight-man All Black scrummage in the absence of Lawrence Dallaglio and Neil Back, and he completed the game despite suffering a shoulder injury and spilling blood for the cause - he has been replaced at loose-head prop by Trevor Woodman of Gloucester. Clive Woodward, the England coach, had always intended to ring the changes, but yesterday still hit the Leicester man between the eyes.

"Sometimes, it's difficult to explain these things to a player," Woodward admitted. "Graham is disappointed, obviously." So too is Jason Leonard, who started the Wellington Test. The venerable Harlequin probably expected Phil Vickery, for whom he made way at half-time, to be awarded first shot at the world champions this weekend on the strength of a stunning 40-minute command performance against the All Blacks, and he has the consolation of a place on the bench. Rowntree will watch England's final match of a long, but wildly successful season from the stand.

"I had pretty much made up my mind about the front-row before leaving England," Woodward said. "It's tough on Rowntree and Leonard, but this is an ideal opportunity to look at what we have in terms of props. Graham has played really well for us this year and Jason has done a fantastic job, filling in at tight head when we all know he prefers the loose head role. Now, it's important to give people like Woodman and Vickery game time."

Vickery, working towards optimum fitness after months of back trouble, played a full game against the Maori in New Plymouth before helping to turn the Wellington Test with some spectacular open-field running. Woodman, his club colleague, also faced the Maori, and confirmed his international readiness. The big Cornishman is more than a stone heavier than Rowntree, while Vickery has 9lb on Leonard, so England, politely described as "gargoyles" and "white orcs on steroids" in the New Zealand press, will be even more orc-ish this time. Tolkien would have loved them.

Woodman started the international season as Woodward's first-choice loose head, but a neck injury suffered against the All Blacks at Twickenham last November turned out to be worse than at first thought, and he was forced to kiss goodbye to the lion's share of the campaign. "The problem was at the base of my neck, where a disc was pressing on a nerve," he explained. "I needed an operation, in which the surgeon shaved away part of the disc, and I've been having regular consultations ever since."

A strong show against the formidable Patricio Noriega would do much to cement Woodman's status as the most potent loose head available to Woodward. Rowntree and Leonard can do the business on the left-hand side of the scrum, as can David Flatman, currently with England A in Canada. But Woodman is the coming man, a dynamic ball-carrier in open play as well as a heavyweight operator in the set-piece.

Woodward has made several changes among the replacements. Mark Regan will take over from Dorian West as back-up hooker with Alex King, yet to get a decent run on this trip, replacing Paul Grayson as the reserve outside-half. Matt Dawson, meanwhile, has recovered from the minor thigh problem that forced him out of the All Blacks Test, and has nudged Andy Gomarsall off the bench. The scrum-half contest between Dawson and Kyran Bracken, which has been going on longer than some soap operas, is about to enter a new phase.


v Australia, Telstra Dome, Melbourne, Saturday, 10.30am

J Lewsey (Wasps); J Robinson (Sale), W Greenwood (Harlequins), M Tindall (Bath), B Cohen (Northampton); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), K Bracken (Saracens); T Woodman (Gloucester), S Thompson (Northampton), P Vickery (Gloucester), M Johnson (Leicester, capt), B Kay (Leicester), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester), L Dallaglio (Wasps). Replacements: M Regan (Leeds), J Leonard (Harlequins), S Borthwick (Bath), J Worsley (Wasps), M Dawson (Northampton), A King (Wasps), D Luger (Harlequins).