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Lions to summon up the Gauteng spirit to nail mighty Natal

The Super 12 phenomenon has transformed southern hemisphere rugby to such a degree that Martin Johnson's Lions have been forced to adopt a whole new playing philosophy just to give themselves an even chance of survival, writes Chris Hewett.

In South Africa, they do not come any more super than Natal, double Currie Cup champions and a side eminently capable of wrecking the tourists' buoyant self-confidence in Durban this afternoon.

It is, however, a mark of the visitors' unfathomable reserves of belief and spirit that they go into their latest provincial examination at King's Park as slight favourites. Johnson and company are on such a high that the police must be tempted to take a look inside the team doctor's medicine chest, but there was nothing illegal about the spine-tingling victory over Gauteng in Johannesburg on Wednesday that left the entire party refreshed and invigorated.

"As we've repeatedly said on this tour, there is no split between the Saturday and midweek sides," Johnson said yesterday. "We're all in this together and those who did not take part in the Gauteng match know that they need a big performance against Natal to keep pace with their rivals for a Test place. Wednesday night was all about spirit and it's up to us to repeat that here."

On this occasion, the Lions have access to some valuable inside information; Andy Keast, the Harlequins coach and a video-devouring tactical and technical assistant on this trip, spent two years with Natal from 1994 and guided them to Currie Cup glory in 1995. Keast was as delighted as anyone with the Gauteng triumph, but he did his level best yesterday to restore some sanity with a timely warning or two.

"Natal are the strongest side in South Africa," he confirmed. "They've got heaps of confidence - after all their success at home and in Super 12, they simply don't believe they can lose - and they are so powerful up front that they wear down even the most dangerous opponents.

"Sure, they've lost Andre Joubert ad Henry Honiball and Mark Andrews to the Springboks, but they have real depth to their squad.

"The Lions will find them different to Northern Transvaal and Gauteng. In fact, they may find Natal different to Natal in the sense that they might expand their game to suit the occasion. They're very useful from one to 15 and away from the pressures of the Currie Cup, they may well try to turn it on out wide."

With Kevin Putt, their wonderfully effective scrum-half, suffering from injury and Honiball confined to Bokke camp in advance of next weekend's opening Test in Cape Town, the Sharks, as they are known in Super 12, pair Robert de Preez and Hans Scriba in a veteran half-back partnership. Du Preez played for South Africa in their isolation-breaking showpiece with New Zealand in 1992, while Scriba has been only recently coaxed out of retirement.

Meanwhile, John Allan, the Natal hooker who played Tests for both Scotland and South Africa between 1990 and 1994, is moving in the opposite direction. Allan bids a fond farewell to the Sharks' front row after today's encounter to take up a coaching position with London Scottish.

"It's sad to be saying goodbye but I consider myself privileged to have been involved in it all," he said. "As the King's Park stands have grown bigger and bigger, the side has grown better and better."

NATAL: G Lawless; S Payne, J Thomson, P Muller, J Joubert; H Scriba, R du Preez; O le Roux, J Allan, R Kempson, J Slade, N Wegner, W van Heerden, D Kriese, W Fyvie (capt).

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).