Playing the Natal way

Tony Wallace discovers the tourists' secret weapon in rugby's tactical war
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The Independent Online
Andy Keast knows about Natal rugby. So he should because for two years Keast, in harness with the coach Ian McIntosh, guided South Africa's leading province to Currie Cup triumphs before returning to his native England last summer to take up residence as Harlequins' Director of Coaching.

So impressed were the Lions' management with Keast's methods and his inside knowledge of South African rugby that they invited him to join them as the Technical Coaching Assistant. But Keast's skills and his vital professional input belie his innocuous title, or the fact that so few people in British rugby know of him.

A quietly spoken Devonian, Keast, who was born within the grounds of Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth in 1962 - where his father was a Marine sergeant major - was, as a birthright, inculcated with the virtues of precision, discipline, concentration and sound preparation. These attributes are without price in a war zone, and the Springboks look upon a Lions visit as nothing less than sporting war.

Keast, and the Lions' coach, Ian McGeechan, have every reason to believe that these factors must be imbibed by every member of the team chosen for the First Test in Cape Town next Saturday, if the Lions are to gain a psychological advantage and go one up in the three-match series.

It is not that Keast knows more than anyone else on the Lions side about the Springboks - he almost certainly does - but how he imparts this knowledge and makes it work to the Lions' benefit. To assist him, Keast has keyed into the most sophisticated video wizardry available even outdoing McGeechan, whose obsession with the video as an aid to player improvement has earned him widespread regard.

"We have provided every Lion with a personal video highlighting his own strengths and weaknesses from earlier tour games," says Keast. "In addition, they each had a one-hour video of Natal, which looked at individuals as well as unit skills; back-row, front five, centres and so on.

"That way, the player can gain an insight to his own game and work on the minus points, while attempting to advance the good things. In looking at the opposition collectively, the team should attempt to break them down where we think they are most vulnerable."

It took almost 30 minutes for the Lions to expose Natal's vulnerability up the middle of the field, when Keith Wood chipped ahead for Gregor Townsend to score the opening try. "Natal defend with a flat line," said Keast, "and we planned to use the short kick, which also earned Mike Catt his touchdown from Gregor's inch-perfect chip."

The trick now is to repair the video equipment which seemed as if it had gone into meltdown on Friday, and seek more improvements before Saturday.