Rugby Union: English front row faces test of Lions credentials

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England's vaunted front-row union enter the Last Chance Saloon in Wellington today knowing that unless they raise their collective game by roughly 100 per cent, the Lions selectors will call time on their immediate Test ambitions. It may come as a surprise to Jack Rowell, the England coach, but Jason Leonard and company are finding it far harder to repel their Celtic challengers on this tour than at any point during last season's Five Nations' Championship.

Leonard captains the Lions for the second time against a Emerging Springboks outfit prepared with customary single-mindedness by Nick Mallett, the former South African loose forward who narrowly lost out to Carel du Plessis in the race for the national coaching post after Andre Markgraaff's abrupt departure four months ago.

As England's most capped prop and a star Lion in New Zealand in 1993, Leonard started the tour as a Test certainty. Four weeks on, he will have to shift his burly carcass across every blade of grass at the Boland Stadium if he is to see off the obvious threat of David Young and Paul Wallace in the run-up to this weekend's opening Test in Cape Town.

For Graham Rowntree and Mark Regan, the margin of error is narrower still. Rowntree is very definitely behind Tom Smith, the diminutive Watsonians loose-head, in the pecking order while Regan, who has done little wrong in his two starts, is struggling to hold off Barry Williams, the previously unheralded Welsh hooker, let alone the dynamic Keith Wood.

Once again the Lions hierarchy insisted yesterday that today's match will be taken into full account when they meet to finalise their Test line-up, and Leonard was only too pleased to reinforce that pledge. "Everyone in the side sees this as a final trial and I don't think I'll need to come up with much in the dressing-room by way of motivation," he said.

"You'll have to speak to Graham and Mark for their views, but as far as I'm concerned there is more to come from us as a unit. We've always looked to peak for the Tests, to be at our fastest and strongest and most skilful at the right time. That time has now arrived."

Fran Cotton, the Lions manager, said he would not unveil his Test line- up until Saturday morning. All the same, the majority of the 15 places have been settled and the most obviously open positions remain left wing, tight-head prop, middle jumper and No 8. Tony Diprose, the gifted ball- handling No 8 from Saracens who replaced the injured Scott Quinnell at the end of last week, gets his first taste of Lions rugby but most eyes will be on John Bentley, the Newcastle wing, and Jeremy Davidson, the Irish lock, both of whom harbour realistic Test hopes. "I've treated every game I've played as a Test trial and I'll continue to do so until I'm on the plane home," said Davidson, whose youthful exuberance and flexibility in the line-out was at the heart of last week's victory over Gauteng.

The Emerging Springboks will be led by Dale Santon, a fiery hooker from Boland whose reputation rather precedes him. Mallett has chosen eight Super 12 regulars, including the Free State second-row of Ryno Opperman and Braam Els. Louis van Rensburg, the Gauteng outside-half, also gets a run and not even the sternest Lion would begrudge him a decent game. Last year Van Rensburg was shot through the neck during an armed robbery in Johannesburg, in which two members of his family were killed. For a week it seemed he would be left permanently paralysed, but he recovered to rebuild his career.

EMERGING SPRINGBOKS: M Smith (Free State); D Keyser (Eastern Province), P Montgomery (Western Province), M Hendricks (Boland), P Trew (South West Districts); L van Rensburg (Gauteng), J Adlam (North West); R Kempson (Natal), D Santon (Boland, capt), N du Toit (Boland), R Opperman (Free State), B Els (Free State), W Brosnihan (Gauteng), J Coetzee (Free State), P Smit (Griqualand West).

BRITISH ISLES: T Stimpson (Newcastle and England); J Bentley (Newcastle and England), A Bateman (Richmond and Wales), W Greenwood (Leicester), N Beal (Northampton and England); M Catt (Bath and England), A Healey (Leicester and England); G Rowntree (Leicester and England), M Regan (Bristol and England), J Leonard (Harlequins and England, capt), N Redman (Bath and England), J Davidson (London Irish and Ireland), R Wainwright (Watsonians and Scotland), A Diprose (Saracens and England), N Back (Leicester and England). Replacements: N Jenkins (Pontypridd and Wales), T Underwood (Newcastle and England), M Dawson (Northampton and England), B Williams (Richmond and Wales), P Wallace (Saracens and Ireland), T Rodber (Northampton and England).