Mauling for South Africans

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Eastern Province 11 British Lions 39

Tales of the unexpected. The Lions emerge from the bloodstained bullring of Boet Erasmus with a clean bill of health, Doddie Weir takes Kobus Wiese to the cleaners at the line-out and the only fight involves half a dozen drunks and a streaker on the roof of a train overlooking the ground. Port Elizabeth just ain't what it used to be.

Certainly, Lawrence Dallaglio, Simon Shaw and the other survivors - the word is used advisedly - of that almighty punch-up between England and Eastern Province three years ago would not have recognised the place on Saturday. This fixture, the first of the Lions' 13-match tour, was sunlit rather than floodlit and the home side were on their best behaviour. Even Jaco Kirsten kept the tin lid on his temper. Once condemned by all upstanding Englishmen as the hooker from hell, he has now taken to measuring his sporting activity over eighty minutes rather than 12 rounds.

Not that Kirsten was remotely impressed by the Lions' opening gambit; he may have found himself on the wrong end of five excellent tries and a stuffing but, in his considered view, the tourists showed little to suggest they might threaten the Springboks when Test time comes around. "The Boks should be able to take them up front because their forwards are not that strong," he said. "In fact, a really good provincial outfit like Auckland would stand up to this Lions side."

Johan Kluyts, the Eastern Province coach, was equally dismissive, suggesting that the Lions' tight forwards were short of muscle. Meanwhile, Hennie le Roux, the extravagantly gifted Springbok string-puller drafted in from Transvaal for a one-off game on his old stamping ground, found the Lions low in intensity and the game itself something of a soft touch. It did not, he said, stack up against the rigours of Super 12, either in terms of pace or fervour.

Home propaganda has long been part and parcel of Lions tours and Fran Cotton, Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer, who have heard it all a thousand times before, will be tempted to consign most of the above to the dustbin marked "claptrap". A 28-point winning margin on a hard ground in front of 25,000 Port Elizabeth heavies? Five tries to one and still counting at the final whistle? That will do very nicely for starters, thank you.

And yes, the Lions were quite entitled to take a degree of satisfaction from their Boet Erasmus experience: Scott Quinnell, full of oomph in attack and energetic enough to make a wonderful try-saving tackle on the distinctly slippery Henry Pedro, laid an immediate claim to a Test place; Dallaglio and Richard Hill, the Welshman's back-row confreres, were very nearly as effective in making the hard yards while out on the gallops, Jeremy Guscott and Will Greenwood wielded the rapier in style. Guscott's tries, early and late, were mini-masterpieces, the acts of a sportsman utterly at ease with his own talents.

Yet with all those elements in good working order, the Lions should have doubled their tally rather than spend more than 50 minutes faffing around in a blur of angst-ridden confusion. Easterns, far more of an under-rehearsed scratch outfit than their visitors, took advantage of Gregor Townsend's lack of control at stand-off with such relish that, by the hour mark, they were breathing in the enticing scent of a major upset.

Townsend was not the only culprit. Neil Jenkins' tactical kicking was equally off the wall and when, after Deon Keyser's thrilling 48th-minute try, the tourists looked for a firm hand from their tight five to slap down the uprising, nothing much happened. It was left to Quinnell to deliver and only when the enigmatic second-generation Lion thundered off the base of a scrum to work Weir over from a metre did the signal arrive for a decisive rush of 29 points in 17 minutes.

McGeechan, then, will need to indulge in one or two head-scratching sessions. Given the perfect playing conditions, the Lions' kicking out of hand was an abomination: any half-decent opposition would have made them suffer. There were problems at the line-out, too; Weir's success against Wiese was more than welcome, for it was good for the Lions' collective soul to see such a potent symbol of Springbok supremacy given what for but, in general terms, the ball-winning was shoddy.

"I'm delighted by the way we finished and I felt the first 20 minutes were good, but we lost control of the ball in the middle period," McGeechan admitted. "Still, we're here to learn and adapt game by game and, if the players are willing to do that, we'll be in good shape when we get to the Tests. This result gives us a lead into the rest of the tour."

So it does. Only rarely have the Lions come through an opening tour match in such fine fettle - the 1971 vintage actually lost the first game of what would become a legendary adventure against the All Blacks, while both the 1980 and 1993 parties suffered morale-denting injuries almost direct from the initial kick-off - and McGeechan's bold claims of a unity of purpose rivalling that of Willie John McBride's 1974 party have, on the face of it, much to commend them. Eastern Province, though, were no more of an acid test than Border are likely to be on Wednesday. We will know more after the collision with Western Province in Cape Town at the weekend.

Scorers: Eastern Province: Try Keyser; Penalties van Rensburg 2. Lions: Tries Guscott 2, Weir, Underwood, Greenwood. Conversions Jenkins 4. Penalties Jenkins 2.

Eastern Province: T van Rensburg; D Keyser, R van Jaarsfeld, H le Roux (R Loubscher, 80), H Pedro; K Ford (R Fourie, 42), C Alcock; D Saayman, J Kirsten (capt, M Winter, 80), W Enslin (M van der Merwe, 40), K Wiese, A de Preez, S Scott-Young, J Greeff, M Webber.

British Lions: N Jenkins; I Evans (T Underwood, 67), J Guscott, W Greenwood, N Beal; G Townsend, R Howley; T Smith, K Wood (B Williams, 67), J Leonard (capt), G Weir, S Shaw (J Davidson, 72), L Dallaglio, S Quinnell, R Hill.

Referee: A Turner (Western Province).