Rugby Union: Grayson will miss Lions first outing

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Rugby Union


reports from Durban

Rather like John McEnroe's left arm or a darts champion's beer gut, Paul Grayson's right leg is fundamental to his sporting art. Unfortunately for the goalkicker from Northampton, that appendage is giving him no end of hassle; unfortunately for the Lions, he cannot be considered for the opening salvo of the South African tour against Eastern Province on Saturday.

Grayson sat out all the meaningful sections of yesterday's first-up training session at King's Park, a two-hour stint sweated out in temperatures in the high seventies. "It's not going to get much hotter, apparently," Ian McGeechan, the senior coach, said without the slightest degree of conviction. Most of the Lions went straight from training field to swimming pool without passing Go.

McGeechan was careful not to sound too many alarm bells on the subject of Grayson, one of only two specialist goalkickers in a squad decidedly lacking in marksmanship, and the player himself insisted that the muscle strain at the top of his thigh was "almost right". But the unpalatable fact remains that England's first-choice outside-half has not laced up his boots in anger since the middle of March, hardly ideal preparation for the rigours of an eight-week jaunt around Bokkedom.

"Paul's problem is not directly connected with the injury that kept him on the sidelines towards the end of the domestic season, although it's in the same area of his kicking leg," said McGeechan, who also saw Jeremy Davison, the Irish lock, pick up a neck strain and Alan Tait, the Scottish centre, withdraw from the session with a viral infection. "We don't want to jeopardise his recovery by asking him to do too much too soon."

Given McGeechan's declared policy of giving all 35 players a start in the opening three matches - the games with Border and Western Province follow this weekend's rumble at the Boet Erasmus in Port Elizabeth - Grayson will be under pressure to prove his fitness by the time the Lions reach Cape Town on Thursday week. If he fails, Mike Catt can expect to be whistled up from England's tour of Argentina.

Martin Johnson, the captain, and his fellow forwards bore the brunt of yesterday's session, mercilessly administered by the Ayatollah of scrummaging, Jim Telfer. The Scottish coach could watch set-piece rehearsals all day long and seemed perfectly prepared to on this occasion as his charges pitted their strength against the latest in designer scrum machines. And how did he rate the session on a scale of one to 10? "Oh, about three." God help the Lions when he asks for some serious effort.

Privately, the Lions believe they can hold, perhaps even dominate, the very best tight units the South Africans have to offer. Their main concern, outside of injuries, is how the big matches will be refereed. To that end, McGeechan lunched yesterday with two of the Springboks' most highly regarded officials, Steve Strydom and Frik Burger, in an effort to get on the inside track.

"We want to play positively but with some control and if we end up conceding strings of penalties, it won't do us any good and neither will it benefit the game as a whole," he said. "I'm not being defensive about this, but realistic. We need to understand the philosophy of referees in this part of the world." McGeechan will not have forgotten the experience of Christchurch 1993, when his Lions side lost the opening Test of a three-match series with New Zealand as a direct result of a myopic interpretation of the ruck law by the Australian Brian Kinsey.

McGeechan learned something else in New Zealand that year: that talented players perform better off the leash than on it. "We will not discourage anyone from being positive on this trip. I don't want the players to feel they are in a straitjacket; indeed, I want to see us develop a more instinctive style than we managed four years ago. But having said that, I've never been in favour of loose rugby. To play with instinct, you also have to play with self- discipline. Those will be the watchwords on this tour."

n Richmond have signed Barry Williams, the Wales and Lions hooker, from Neath to replace Brian Moore, who retired at the end of the season.