Graham Rowntree evokes English spirit of 2003

BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: England assistant coach Graham Rowntree is one of a few visiting players to have won a test series in NZ.
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: England assistant coach Graham Rowntree is one of a few visiting players to have won a test series in NZ.

It's not unknown for the England rugby team to lay down a World Cup marker in New Zealand - a situation assistant coach Graham Rowntree knows only too well.

As the current England team - minus a few frontliners - plot the upset of the century against the All Blacks at Eden Park on Saturday night, assistant coach Rowntree shapes as a key figure for the tourists.

Rowntree, after all, is one of the few Englishmen to have tasted victory over the All Blacks on their home soil - being part of Martin Johnson's 2003 side that won against the odds in Wellington, just months before going on to lift the World Cup in Australia.

It's going to be Rowntree's job to convince his charges that they too can carve their place in history if they bring the right ingredients against the world's No 1 side.

The long-serving loosehead prop yesterday recalled what he believed to be the key ingredient in that 15-13 victory in 2003, notable for the English side at one stage being down to just six forwards and still repelling the All Blacks' scrum from five metres out.

"It was a special night, and a case of incredible self-belief," Rowntree said yesterday as his side stepped up preparations for three straight tests against the All Blacks. "That night it took an incredible amount of self-belief. We all know how good this [All Blacks] team is at the moment and how good they are as a nation, but we come out here full of enthusiasm and self-belief."

Rowntree later shared a more fulsome recollection of that night, and sitting alongside him at the team hotel you could see young Bath prop David Wilson positively bristling at the evocation of that spirited evening in the capital.

"We were fortuitous because Carlos Spencer missed a few opportunities with ball in hand and shots at goal, but we stuck in there. I remember being down to six men in a scrum on our own goal-line at one period, because we had Lawrence [Dallaglio] and Neil Back in the sinbin.

"It's hard enough with the full deck of cards against the All Blacks, never mind down to six. That was hanging on for dear life but that's rugby in adversity - digging in and hanging on there.

"That was a significant win for that group of players who went on to win the World Cup. It was a stepping stone. That's what it's about for our young players as well, hopefully achieving those stepping stones. Pitching ourselves against the best at Eden Park on Saturday night, it doesn't get any better or any harder."

Rowntree emphasised that this week was not about who wasn't here for England (their Premiership finalists), nor about who was there for an All Blacks lineup he admitted was oozing ability and experience.

"It's about our own game. We've made so many strides with a group of players over the last eight months, then it's bolting on another group and bedding them in with your systems. We'll see what they can do because they're super excited.

"But we've got enough on our plate getting our own game right to be over-awed  by the All  Blacks. We know how good we have to be, we know the challenge they bring, but with a new group we've got enough on our plate getting our own game going."

Wilson, who's won 34 caps in the front row, said the belief factor was high in a group that were invigorated by the opportunity.

"We have a few guys missing but it's a brilliant opportunity for everybody involved. As a schoolboy I used to dream about playing New Zealand so here I am. It's a great opportunity for everyone who takes the field.

"You know they're a class act, but at the end of the day they're 15 men, we're 15 men and you do the best on the night."

Listening to Rowntree evoke 2003, Wilson admitted it was "dead motivating", before adding: "It's what rugby is - you work as hard as you can for 80 minutes and hopefully you're going to be there or thereabouts close to the end."