Lions have the scent of battle

Chris Hewett finds Fran Cotton's squad raring to go for next week's first match of the South African tour
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The Independent Online
The 1997 Lions may smell like the innermost recesses of a Supermodel's vanity bag, thanks to a sponsorship deal with the Yardley's cosmetics firm, but all they want right now is to catch a first whiff of gunsmoke down Jo'burg way. Somehow, the scent of blood suits them far more than the scent of lavender.

Martin Johnson's 35-strong party talked themselves on to a war footing yesterday, the siege mentality clearly in evidence as they turned their minds towards South Africa and a three-Test series against a legion of Springboks with history burning a hole in their collective ego. Declarations of intent come cheap, however, especially when they are delivered an entire hemisphere away from the trenches.

"We're heading for a different rugby culture, an environment in which a fetish has been made of physical size and physical intimidation," said Jim Telfer, the assistant coach, from the seductive surroundings of a luxurious country hotel in deepest Surrey. But while his Scottish brogue was calm and measured, it bore more than an element of hardened steel; enough, certainly, to suggest that he at least would be fully prepared for the tour opener on the killing fields of Port Elizabeth a week tomorrow.

"I think we are looking forward with relish to the challenge of confrontation. South Africa is a foreign country with a foreign attitude; when you tour New Zealand you feel you are taking on kindred spirits and we have grown used to the French way of doing things because we play them so regularly, but there is something in Springbok rugby that stands them apart.''

Unsurprisingly, Fran Cotton, a potent symbol of outsized Lions muscle from a bygone age, was every bit as mean and then some. "There will be a lot of talk of '74 down there," said the manager, recalling with obvious glee that seminal tour in which the Springboks had their highly prized backsides kicked harder, far harder, than ever before. "The South Africans would like to erase those events from the history books, but it happened and they know it. Whatever can be drawn from that trip will be drawn, because to my mind, it is all about reproducing the unity of purpose we generated 23 years ago.''

The game may have moved on over the past two decades - but in Cotton's view, some aspects of the Springbok rugby experience will never change. "We'll be taking on the whole country again, just like before," he predicted. "Everywhere we go, people will chip away at our self-confidence and self- belief. Discipline and professionalism will be vital ingredients both on and off the field because this tour is one of the toughest in the whole history of the Lions. Nothing short of 100 per cent commitment will do.''

Which rather begged the question of Cotton's recent preoccupation with the minutiae of English rugby politics rather than the broader issue of taking on and seeing off the world champions. Would Fran now put the proverbial sock in it as far as Cliff Brittle, Tony Hallett, the RFU Reform Group and myriad other beefs and bitches were concerned? "Yes," he said, prompting sighs of relief that would have measured double figures on the Beaufort Scale.

The Lions have spent the last few days participating in a bizarre programme of team-building activities including canoeing and, er, competitive crate stacking and are as fit for the fray as they will ever be. That includes the major long-term injury doubts Neil Jenkins, Tony Underwood and Keith Wood, who have respectively recovered from a broken arm, a broken jaw and a dislocated shoulder.

It was certainly encouraging to see Captain Johnson at ease with the world after the most gruelling domestic season in his, or anyone else's, career. "There's been a lot of rugby but, thanks to professionalism, a lot of rest and recuperation as well," he said. "I honestly don't think I've ever felt so fresh at the end of the season." Those heavily perfumed sponsors have ensured that he smells fresh, too. The Springboks will not only need to stay on top of the tourists this summer. They will also need to stay upwind of them.