Rugby Union: Celtic front squares up to Springboks

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When Jack Rowell finally stops rubbing his eyes in disbelief later this morning, he will probably catch sight of an entire gaggle of bookmakers laughing all the way to the nearest bank

No one, least of all the England coach, could conceivably have predicted that the Lions would go into tomorrow's first Test against South Africa armed with four Celts in the front five, two of them bantamweight props. But there you have it; the world has been turned on its head in the space of a month.

Tom Smith and Paul Wallace, 15 international caps between them and not much more than 16st apiece, will cement the British Isles scrum against a fearsome Springbok front row featuring Os du Randt, the former schoolboy wrestler from the Free State who could probably lose both opponents among the loose change in his right pocket.

With Keith Wood of Ireland installed as hooker and Jeremy Davidson, his countryman, ensconced in the second row, only Martin Johnson survives from the muscle-bound English unit that swept all before it in last season's Five Nations' Championship

Staggering as it still seems to those who watched Scotland and Ireland mercilessly dismantled by England just four months ago, the demise of the red rose tight five has been on the cards since Smith, Wallace and Davidson squared up to the hard nuts of Gauteng in Johannesburg last Wednesday night and emerged with their teeth intact and their reputations hugely enhanced.

There had never been much of a question mark over their collective footballing abilities - abilities entirely suited to Ian McGeechan's vision of a wide, attacking, 21st century game plan - but their success in the less glamorous and infinitely more perilous areas of scrum, maul and line-out persuaded the selectors to trust them with the ultimate responsibility awaiting the tourists at Newlands. In short, their rapid progress enabled McGeechan and the rest of the hierarchy to stick to their guns and maintain the courage of their adventurous convictions.

Win or lose, this is a bravura selection. The Lions would have entered tomorrow's fray with a still bolder appearance had Eric Miller, the brilliant Irish No 8, not fallen victim to a flu-type virus that finally ruled him out of contention yesterday.

Fran Cotton, the manager, reached new heights of diplomacy by skirting the hard questions, but there is no doubt that Miller was first choice when the selectors put their heads together on Tuesday night.

Tim Rodber, a notable success in his two excursions as midweek captain, joins Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill in an all-English back row. His promotion ensures a Northampton axis in the crucial decision-making areas of No 8 and half-back, with Matt Dawson and Gregor Townsend also in place. "We know each other's games backwards," Townsend said yesterday.

In the only other contentious position, Alan Tait was named in front of John Bentley - the big character of the tour party, if not the most delicate - on the left wing. Bentley can legitimately curse his luck, especially after his heroics in Johannesburg and another highly charged effort in Wellington on Tuesday, but Tait's superior footballing know- how makes him a perfectly sound choice to confront James Small.

"The fact that some of those once perceived as Test outsiders have come through so quickly is a tribute to the individuals concerned and also a tribute to the entire squad, who have met the challenge of drawing the best from each other," McGeechan said. "It was unquestionably the hardest selection debate of my career and there are players outside the 21 with whom I could be completely happy to go into a Test.

"Yes, scrummaging is going to be exceptionally important tomorrow, but we think we've come up with a tight front row. We've based our decisions purely on how players have come on during the tour and on the particular strengths they possess in terms of the things we're trying to achieve as a side.

"It will be a massive step up for everyone, we know that. But we've built up an understanding over the last five weeks that encourages me greatly."

Johnson, the captain, is the only forward with experience of a Lions' Test - he played twice in New Zealand in 1993. It is a different story among the threequarters, where Jeremy Guscott and Scott Gibbs renew their successful partnership of four years ago and Ieuan Evans plays his seventh consecutive British Isles international on the right-wing. "It was an honour back in '89 and it's still an honour now," the Welsh icon from Llanelli said.

It is Wood, however, who has the over-riding reason to feel sharply emotional about his achievement; his late father Gordon played two Tests as a Lions prop in New Zealand in 1959 and when the Harlequins hooker broke the good news to his mother back home in Limerick, there were tears of joy on both ends of the phone. "Emulating my father wasn't something I'd even thought about before coming here but now, at the 11th hour, the heartstrings are beginning to pull," he said. This may be the first professional tour in Lions history, but there are still some things that money cannot buy.

BRITISH ISLES (v South Africa, Cape Town, tomorrow): N Jenkins (Pontypridd and Wales); I Evans (Llanelli and Wales), J Guscott (Bath and England), S Gibbs (Swansea and Wales), A Tait (Newcastle and Scotland); G Townsend (Northampton and Scotland), M Dawson (Northampton and England); T Smith (Watsonians and Scotland), K Wood (Harlequins and Ireland), P Wallace (Saracens and Ireland), M Johnson (Leicester and England, capt), J Davidson (London Irish and Ireland), L Dallaglio (Wasps and England), T Rodber (Northampton and England), R Hill (Saracens and England). Replacements: J Bentley (Newcastle and England), M Catt (Bath and England), A Healey (Leicester and England), B Williams (Richmond and Wales), J Leonard (Harlequins and England), R Wainwright (Watsonians and Scotland).