Lions trampled underfoot

Northern Transvaal 35 British Lions 30
Click to follow
The Independent Online
A dangerous profession, bullfighting: turn your back for half a second and you instantly find yourself dangling on the wrong end of something sharp and excruciating. Rather like the fighting breeds of Madrid and Valencia, the Blue Bulls of Northern Transvaal are strong of sinew, bring an aura of brooding menace to the scene of battle and go for the kill at the first glimpse of red. Perhaps the Lions should have changed their shirts.

Having been spoon-fed some relatively easy meat in their opening quartet of matches, the tourists were right to be wary of their first confrontation with a thoroughbred beast of Super 12 stature. Survival depended on the picadors in the tourists' pack softening up their opposite numbers and allowing the matadors outside sufficient time and space to flourish their collective cape. Thanks to another fragile scrummaging performance, the Lions' forwards utterly failed to impose their will and, as a result, Martin Johnson's men were fortunate to leave Loftus Versfeld with their spirits intact.

Intact? Apparently so. Irrespective of the fact that Saturday's 35-30 defeat was the Lions' first reverse against a South African province in very nearly 30 years and despite the discomfort of losing to a Northern Transvaal denuded of a third of their Super 12 line-up, Fran Cotton, the tour manager, insisted that the damage to morale was not so much insignificant as infinitesimal.

Nevertheless, 80 minutes of error-strewn rugby cost the Lions the psychological edge so painstakingly honed over the past three weeks. If they did not possess one before, the Springbok tacticians now have a precise blueprint for victory in the Test series: scrum, scrum and scrum again.

As Adriaan Richter, the Blue Bulls captain and a South African international of considerable resourcefulness, pointed out on Saturday night, the tourists' problems start and end at the set-piece. Given the strength of Lions' tight units over the last quarter of a century - Cotton himself squeezed the very pips from both Springbok and All Black packs in his day - it would be a travesty if this squad found their efforts and ambitions compromised by a powder-puff scrummage. Unless the heavy brigade get themselves sorted without further delay, however, Os du Randt and company will enjoy a duck- shoot in Cape Town in 12 days' time.

On Saturday, Richter was able to use a totally secure scrum platform as a prime attacking base, and twice the Lions conceded short-side tries as a direct result of their inability to knock the Bulls out of their ultra-comfortable armchair. Danie van Schalkwyk and Richter himself were the beneficiaries as the visitors repeatedly allowed themselves to be wheeled out of position. As Lawrence Dallaglio, the shrewd back-row organiser from Wasps, admitted after the match, it might well have been a whole lot worse had Joost van der Westhuizen, the lightning-fast Springbok scrum- half, been available to the home side.

Lack of clout in the bump and grind also made life difficult for Scott Quinnell. The best ball-carrying No 8 in the party was virtually anonymous against the Bulls, largely because he spent so much of the match on the back foot rather than the front, and with Eric Miller patently unhappy on the open-side flank - he looked about as much at home as a fish in a tree - the Lions' entire forward effort was frayed and ragged.

Richter, Nicky van der Walt and Schutte Bekker ran the whole show so effectively, particularly during the first half, that the Lions might conceivably have found themselves 30 points to the bad. Andre Watson, the Eastern Transvaal referee, denied Wynand Lourens a perfectly good try early on and also gave the visitors the rub of the green with two forward pass calls that were marginal at best.

As it was, Casper Steyn and van Schalkwyk crossed for first-half tries, Richter added his within a minute of the restart and with Steyn in confident kicking form Northern were over the hills and far away at 25-7 before the Lions started to retaliate in earnest. Had it not been for the sleek virtuosity of Jeremy Guscott, and Gregor Townsend's unpredictability at outside-half, the margin of defeat would almost certainly have bordered on the grotesque.

How the Lions must be thanking their maker for Guscott's presence. If the Bath centre's chip-over try in the 24th minute was a joy to behold, the angle he ran off the mercurial Townsend's bewildering midfield break five minutes into the second half was pure nectar. Those two flashes of unalloyed genius were enough to keep the Lions at the races, and with Tim Stimpson's kicking in rather better shape than the rest of his game, the gap was down to five points with a full quarter still on the clock.

Infuriatingly from Townsend's point of view, unpredictability has its downside as well as its benefits; van Schalkwyk's interception of the Scotsman's derring-do pass to Alan Tait on his own 22 gave the Bulls a fourth try - one too many for the Lions to cope with - and even though Stimpson kept chipping away, Steyn was equally tuned in on the radar front. One last electric connection between Guscott and Townsend gave the latter a superb seven-pointer five minutes from time, but with the Akrikaner forwards still in the box seat there was never much likelihood of an even later skin-saving strike.

Scorers: Northern Transvaal: Tries: van Schalkwyk 2, Steyn, Richter; Conversions: Steyn 3; Penalties: Richter 3. British Lions: Tries: Guscott 2, Townsend; Conversions: Stimpson 3; Penalties: Stimpson 3.

Northern Transvaal: G Bouwer; W Lourens, J Schutte, D van Schalkwyk, C Steyn; R de Marigny, C Breytenbach; L Campher, H Tromp, P Boer, D Grobbelaar, D Badenhorst, N van der Walt, A Richter (capt), S Bekker. Replacements: G Esterhuizen for Lourens, 34; G Laufs for Grobbelaar, 39; J Brooks for Tromp, h/t; R Schroeder for van der Walt, 65; M Proudfoot for Boer, 71.

British Lions: T Stimpson (Newcastle and England); J Bentley (Newcastle and England), J Guscott (Bath and England), A Tait (Newcastle and Scotland), T Underwood (Newcastle and England); G Townsend (Northampton and Scotland), R Howley (Cardiff and Wales); G Rowntree (Leicester and England), M Regan (Bristol and England), J Leonard (Harlequins and England), M Johnson (Leicester and England, capt), S Shaw (Bristol and England), L Dallaglio (Wasps and England), S Quinnell (Richmond and Wales), E Miller (Leicester and Ireland). Replacements: S Gibbs (Swansea and Wales) for Bentley, 60; D Young (Cardiff and Wales) for Leonard, 74.

Referee: A Watson (Eastern Transvaal).