Lions return to veldt in the year of the Ox

RUGBY UNION: Chris Hewett touches down with the British Isles tourists in South Africa to a mixed welcome
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The 1997 Lions caught their first glimpse of Ellis Park, the all but unbreachable citadel of South African rugby, from 10,000 feet as they flew into Johannesburg yesterday. Jason Leonard, Dai Young and the rest of the front row union will have to dig awfully deep if they are not to reach a similar altitude when they return to the metropolis to lock horns with the Springboks in the final Test of three in the opening week of July.

Martin Johnson's party arrived to find the Bokke rugby community alive to the sound of four of the most daunting words in the sport's lexicon: Jacobus Petrus du Randt, the outsized loosehead prop from the Orange Free State. Much to the relief of the fanatical supporters who will guarantee a virtual sell-out at all 13 tour matches, the man they nickname "Os" - Afrikaans for Ox - is red hot, firing on all cylinders after a long run of fitness setbacks and ready to send Lions' scrummages into orbit. Oh well, at least the tourists know the score from the outset.

"Os will be the first name on the team sheet when it comes to the Tests," said one leading South African pundit. "He's been in phenomenal shape during the Super 12 tournament and when he plays at full tilt so do the Boks."

All of which was designed to cloud the fact that the spectacularly dynamic southern hemisphere provincial tournament has taken a heavy toll on other areas of the putative Springbok side. Mark Andrews and Kobus Wiese, the first-choice locks, and Japie Mulder, perhaps the finest defensive centre in the world, are all carrying injuries while Chester Williams, the enduring symbol of multi-racial Rainbow Nation rugby, has no chance of recovering from knee trouble in time to play a part in this series.

Those good vibes were soon dispelled, however, thanks to a timely interjection from Dr Louis Luyt, the South African Rugby Football Union president, for whom diplomacy is not only a foreign language but a foreign concept. "We have a million rugby players in this country," he said by way of a welcome. "I think we'll get 15 on the field to take on the Lions."

Actually, the good doctor was in genial mood. He extended the hand of friendship without feeling an overwhelming desire to crush a few British knuckles at the same time and predicted a fierce but fair series that, with a following wind, will lead to the Springboks confronting the Lions at a European venue in the none too distant future.

"We've been talking about that for a long time, because the days of the lengthy tours are almost over. We could conceivably fly in specifically for two Tests against them or, if we were playing the individual nations, we could end with a game against the Lions rather than the traditional fixture against the Barbarians. It is worthy of serious discussion."

Luyt's comments added considerable weight to an earlier appeal from Ian McGeechan, the Lions coach, who has long held the view that a British Isles select should play the best in the world at home as well as away. "Along with New Zealand, the Springboks represent the pinnacle," he said yesterday. "It would be wonderful for the development of the game back home if the Lions could play more often than every four years."

McGeechan insisted that while the triumphant All Black party, who carried a classic series here last summer, had used the technique of separating their squad into two distinct line-ups, the Lions selectors would mix and match for as long as possible in order to give themselves the optimum opportunity to strike a winning balance for the Tests, which begin in Cape Town on 21 June.

"We'll be together as a squad right the way through," said the clever and pragmatic Scot, a veteran of Willie John McBride's all-conquering 1974 Lions. "The unique thing about a Lions tour is that you never know in advance exactly how the different characters will merge and come together. The Test team evolves out of the early part of the tour, so its important to keep everyone interested and involved."

With the Lions now heading for five days of purdah in Umhlanga, an idyllic Indian Ocean resort a few miles north of Durban - they play their first match, against an Eastern Province Invitation XV, in Port Elizabeth on Saturday - the most immediately intriguing aspect of the eight-week sojourn surrounds the attitude of Carel du Plessis, the new Springbok coach, towards the eight games leading into the opening Test.

McGeechan had assumed that no first-choice Boks would be released for the provincial games, but it now appears that Western Province, Transvaal - now operating as the Gauteng Lions -and Natal will field at least some of their frontline internationals. If Du Plessis decides that key men need a game rather than a rest - and Andrews, Wiese and Andre Joubert, the prince of full- backs, all fall into that category - they will be made available.

While the Lions' arrival at Jan Smuts Airport was relatively low key, there is little doubt that South Africa is up for the first British Isles visit in 17 years. "When the Lions came here in 1974 and I was a prisoner on Robben Island, we very much wanted them to beat the Springboks," said Steve Tshwete, the Minister of Sport, who headed yesterday's welcome party.

"It is different now. The whole country is united behind the national team, for rugby is destined to become a unifying force for our people. The potential is great and while we are not looking at a miracle where everything mushrooms overnight, we are deep in the process of making the sport accessible to all. The is tour will play a part in that process. It is a great event."