13 December 2004
Leicester Tigers loosehead prop Graham Rowntree became the first-ever English player to pass the 50-game mark in the Heineken Cup when he turned out against London Wasps in High Wycombe last Sunday. This weekend, with Wasps due at Welford Road for the second leg of the 'Battle of Britain', Wig is set for another landmark - his 367th match in a Tigers jersey.
Graham became just the 10th player to play 50 Heineken Cup matches - quite an achievement when one considers that English teams did not participate in two Heineken Cup competitions during the 1990s.
"It's an honour to have been involved with such a great club, like Leicester Tigers, that has played so many Heineken Cup games," said a typically modest Rowntree this week. "Wellsy presented me with my cap and it was an honour being around people like him, Johnno, Will Johnson, Lloydy and Cockers - all great players who I've played a lot of rugby with. It's nice and these are the things you remember when you've stopped playing."
Funnily enough, when Rowntree takes to the field on Sunday, he will equal his coach's record of 367 first-team matches for Leicester Tigers and he added: "To be fair, Wellsy had a lot more starts than me and I'm sure Johnno must be up there too, but, really, they're just numbers and it's not something that's in the forefront of my mind at the moment."
Wells, however, was not charmed: "I'm delighted that it actually takes him to the same number of games that I have, but if that means he won't move ahead of me on the list, he might have played his last-ever game for Tigers!"
But the coach did manage to stop laughing for long enough to add: "... Let's face it, he isn't the youngest buck around, but his enthusiasm and his ability to want to make sure that this club succeeds is enormous. He helps pull the young guys through and he also helps drive the older guys along, too."
Rowntree and Wells played many, many games together for Leicester and it is a testament to both men that they remain close, despite the latter having moved from being a team-mate to a coach.
"It demands respect both ways," continued Wells. "I've had to earn my respect as a coach and he's had to earn his respect as a player, not just with me, but also at international level. When you know the guys are doing that, they want a working relationship. Wig does that; he wants to try and make himself a better player all the time and he knows I can help him, just like Andy Robinson can, Pat Howard and Cockers, too. He's prepared to listen and prepared to work and that's why he is where he is today."
Looking ahead to Sunday's mouth-watering clash against London Wasps, Graham is expecting another almighty tussle. Tigers managed a nervy 37-31 victory over the Heineken Cup holders on their turf and everyone at Welford Road is expecting a massive backlash in the return leg of the aptly-named 'Battle of Britain'.
"If I was a Wasps player, having lost at home last week, I'd be going mental," said Graham, "I'd be getting myself into a real confrontational mind trying to win at Welford Road. Make no mistake; it's going to be tough ..."
Tigers tighthead prop Julian White won the official Man of the Match Award last Sunday, but Graham and hooker George Chuter were not far behind as their scrum dominated proceedings, whilst fly-half Andy Goode kicked some crucial goals and a drop-goal.
"Last week was satisfying, but I think we can still do a lot better," admitted Graham - his face lighting up at the mere mention of the word 'scrum'. "That performance took a lot out of us and it's not what you do on the training field at this stage of the season, it's more mental now in the build-up. We've got a big one this week and we're all revved up for it."
Rowntree, White, back rows Lewis Moody and Martin Corry, and scrum-half Harry Ellis all returned to Tigers' starting XV last week after three weeks on England duty during November. (Lock Ben Kay warmed the bench for Tigers.) To make matters worse, Graham, White and Corry were all under injury clouds in the build-up to the Wasps match, but the trio came through the fixture - reputations enhanced and pleased as punch.
"It was worth it," said Wig simply. "As someone said before the game last week, 'If we lose, we're out of Europe', so that kind of helps to focus the mind a bit. We've worked so hard this season to get something for the club, we're not about to let that go to waste and that's why we have to win again this week."
And on facing some of his England colleagues again, some of whom packed down with him against Canada, South Africa and Australia just a few short weeks ago, Graham added: "It's not weird, we play against each other quite often. We're great mates off the field, but when you step over that white line there's just too much at stake to worry about friendships. A guy like Lawrence [Dallaglio], for instance, is a big-game player and a confrontational sort of player, but we'll all have a beer together afterwards."