A crying shame for Howley

Lions pay a heavy price for an impressive victory as their leading scrum-half is forced out of the tour;in Durban Natal 12 British Lions 42
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The Independent Online
Triumph and calamity, the twin impostors of sporting endeavour down the ages, made a joint appearance in Durban yesterday and left the Lions wondering whether they should laugh or cry. Their quite brilliant victory over South Africa's champion province on the shores of the Indian Ocean was so comfortable, so consummately efficient in its execution, that it seemed almost dreamlike. Then came the nightmare: Rob Howley on the plane home with a dislocated shoulder joint.

The Welsh scrum-half was fundamental to the Lions' game plan for the Tests but the tourists' tacticians will now have to think again. Howley damaged his shoulder as he ran off the side of a 10th-minute ruck, tried to play on, admitted defeat three minutes later and was immediately informed by the medical staff that his Springbok sojourn was at an end.

"We are bitterly disappointed for Rob, who was rapidly becoming a world- class player through his performances on this tour," Fran Cotton, the Lions manager, said. "It's a blow, a bad one, but we've always said that the squad ethic will win us the series against the Boks and that hasn't changed."

Cotton and the rest of the Lions' hierarchy were meeting last night to discuss a replacement, with Kyran Bracken of Saracens and England the strong favourite.

Howley aside, the Lions had so much to celebrate after beating Natal more comprehensively than any of their predecessors from the British Isles that they barely knew where to start. Three tries - a chase-up score apiece for Gregor Townsend and Mike Catt and one absolute beauty for Lawrence Dallaglio at the death - gave the visitors their classiest victory in a dozen encounters with these opponents.

The foundations were laid by Neil Jenkins, whose metronomic goal-kicking reaped a rich harvest of 24 points. The Welsh full-back also looked more settled in his positional play and Tim Stimpson, the pre-tour favourite for the Test No 15 shirt, is now looking distinctly vulnerable with the first confrontation with the Springboks six days away.

Jenkins was not the only player to make a major pitch for elite status. Allan Bateman went close to confirming his reputation as the most complete centre in the party with an understated but pricelessly effective midfield performance while the two fire-and-fury merchants from the Emerald Isle, Eric Miller and Keith Wood, did everything in their considerable power to make the selectors sit up and take notice.

In a sense, this was the least spectacular Lions' display since the wet weather shambles in East London in the first week of the tour. With Martin Johnson's forwards in complete control they simply did not require the risk-a-minute, off-the-cuff threequarter fireworks that illuminated the victories over Mpumalanga, Western Province and Gaunteng. True, the absence of Andre Joubert, Henry Honiball, Mark Andrews and Gary Teichmann rendered the Super-12 giants of Natal anything but super, but this was still a formidably controlled effort.

Miller in particular started at a gallop, wiping away the painful memory of last week in Pretoria by getting his hands on the ball early and breezing through the first-up tackles of the Natal back row. Wood also made instant progress and with Johnson looking more flexible than at any time since the Lions' arrival in South Africa, there was an unmistakeable whiff of dynamism about the forward effort.

The only hint of trouble came in the opening set-piece exchanges, where Robbie Kempson gave the much smaller Tom Smith the heavy-duty treatment. Smith has learned fast on this tour, though, and when Johann Meuwesen, the referee, finally tired of the nonsense in the front row, he decided in favour of the Scottish loose-head and gave Jenkins the opportunity to open the Lions' account with a simple penalty on eight minutes.

Gavin Lawless, one of the most relentlessly prolific marksmen in South African rugby, squared it in similar fashion four minutes later when Townsend spilled a laboured pass from the already injured Howley on his own 22.

Matt Dawson replaced the Welshman and almost immediately, the Lions came close to losing another class act when Wickus van Heerden cynically dropped his knee into Dallaglio's back at a ruck. As it turned out, the strong- running flanker gritted his teeth and stayed put.

Lawless slotted a second penalty on 19 minutes when Townsend was caught encroaching at a line-out, but the Lions had already established a degree of control.

Townsend slotted a drop goal on 23 minutes and a few seconds later the Northampton playmaker scored his try. Wood, momentarily exposed in the wide open spaces of the King's Park midfield, put an educated right boot to ball and caught the Natal defence as flat as a pancake. Even though Ollie le Roux followed through to deliver a coathanger tackle to the Irishman's throat, Townsend took advantage of Hans Scriba's fumble for the softest of scores.

That put the Lions in the pound seats; even though Lawless cut the deficit to four points when Dawson stopped Robert du Preez's dangerous close-quarter dart by deliberately knocking on, Jenkins was on target again before the break to leave the Lions sitting rather more comfortably than the 16-9 interval lead suggested.

With Townsend in his pomp and Jenkins banging over monster penalties in his sleep, the second half was pretty much one-way traffic. The Lions were out of sight at 28-12 when the outside-half found the most wicked of kicks to put Shaun Payne under pressure near his own posts and Catt, on for Bateman, claimed the 74th minute touchdown. Six minutes later on the stroke of time, Alan Tait and Scott Gibbs used their muscle and Dawson his wits to create Dallaglio's coup de grace.

Natal: G Lawless; S Payne, J Thomson, P Muller, J Joubert; H Scriba, R du Preez; A-H le Roux, J Allan, R Kempson, J Slade, N Wegner, W van Heerden, D Kriese, W Fyvie (capt). Replacements: R Strudwick for van Heerden, 29; J Smit for le Roux, 76.

British Isles: N Jenkins (Pontypridd and Wales); I Evans (Llanelli and Wales), A Bateman (Richmond and Wales), S Gibbs (Swansea and Wales), A Tait (Newcastle and Scotland); G Townsend (Northampton and Scotland), R Howley (Cardiff and Wales); T Smith (Watsonians and Scotland), K Wood (Harlequins and Ireland), D Young (Cardiff and Wales), M Johnson (Leicester and England, capt), S Shaw (Bristol and England), L Dallaglio (Wasps and England), E Miller (Leicester and Ireland), R Hill (Saracens and England). Replacements: M Dawson (Northampton and England) for Howley, 13; M Catt (Bath and England) for Bateman, 66; J Leonard (Harlequins and England) for Smith, 67.

Referee: J Meuwesen (Eastern Province).