Rugby union: Guscott is the central force

South African tour off to unconvincing start as Lions struggle before taking charge with late burst of scoring: Eastern Prov XV 11 Brit ish Isles 39
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The Independent Online
They did not exactly roar - for uncomfortably long spells, the best the Lions could manage on their opening match in South Africa was a nervous whimper - but with Scott Quinnell in commanding form and Jeremy Guscott purring like a big cat, the job in hand was duly completed in Port Elizabeth yesterday.

Guscott skated over unchallenged for two tries that simply oozed style and swagger. The first gave the Lions some valuable breathing space early on - they would soon be grateful for it - while the second, eight minutes from time, was enough to apply the coup de grace to an Eastern Province outfit who threatened briefly to stage the upset to end them all.

When Deon Kayser left Neil Jenkins standing with a swerving, in-out run of classic dimensions to give the home side an 11-10 lead nine minutes into the second half, the Lions were staring down the barrel of a first defeat by a South African province since Transvaal sneaked past Tom Kiernan's tourists 29 years ago. Within minutes of that strike, Riaan van Jaarsfeld and Hennie le Roux mounted further assaults on a confused Lions defence and had Kobus Wiese not given the referee, Andy Turner, the benefit of his vast wisdom at the worst possible moment, Theo van Rensburg would undoubtedly have extended the lead with a straightforward penalty.

As it was, the Lions weathered the squall - Eastern's purple patch did not last long enough to ascend to storm status - and when Quinnell set up Doddie Weir for a 63rd minute try with a mighty drive from the back of a scrum, the home side's resolve weakened. Tony Underwood and Will Greenwood sandwiched Guscott's second try to ensure a sound winning margin.

The reality, however, will be all too apparent to Ian McGeechan and his coaching staff. A repeat of this performance against Natal, Northern Transvaal or Free State would leave the Lions vulnerable to a hiding and it goes without saying that the three Tests will require an improvement of roughly 100 per cent.

Unusually for the first match of a Lions tour, the opposition lacked familiarity with each other and took far longer to settle. Leaving aside the temporary imports, front-line Springboks Wiese and le Roux who were both launching comebacks from injury, several of their other leading lights - Van Rensburg, Ken Ford, Sam Scott-Young and Matthew Webber - were all signed up recently for the provincial Currie Cup campaign and had never played more than a game of cards together.

While Richard Hill and Lawrence Dallaglio, the England flankers, eased their way into match mode with some streetwise scavenging and a bruising gallop or two out wide, Webber and Scott-Young looked as though they had barely met each other. Scott-Young, who played against the 1989 Lions on their tour of his native Australia, presented the latest vintage with their first points by killing a ruck and handing a simple penalty opportunity to Jenkins.

Van Rensburg squared it with a 40-metre penalty following two missed touches from Gregor Townsend and Jenkins - the Lions' tactical kicking was lamentable throughout - but on nine minutes, Dallaglio and Simon Shaw made ground up the right touchline, Rob Howley kept the ball alive and Guscott had all the time in the world to slice through the remnants of a flat defence.

With Eastern looking like the scratch side they were, the Lions dominated the rest of the opening quarter. But Henry Pedro galvanised the home effort with a startling run that required an enveloping tackle from Quinnell inside the 22 and when Ken Ford, a running outside-half with real pace, opened up the Lions in the same spell, Greenwood produced similar defensive heroics.

Inexplicably, van Rensburg spurned a head-on chance to cut the deficit with a penalty on 35 minutes but he was successful with another short- range effort on the half-time whistle. Kayser's try soon followed and for a few horribly shaky minutes, the Lions were all at sea.

Much of the loose play was down to Townsend, who neither kicked nor tackled his weight. The front row were a little too quiet for their own good, too, but Weir turned in a high-class display to take Wiese to the cleaners at the front of the line-out and when the back row clicked, they made plenty of headway in the heavy traffic.

It was, however, patchy at best. Eastern, who showed little of their dark side despite one cowardly kick by Chad Alcock on Jenkins, were willing but no more. The big boys of South African rugby - and we will see plenty of them on this tour - will not have been frightened at their first glimpse of Martin Johnson's pride.

Eastern Province Invitation: T van Rensburg; D Kayser, R van Jaarsveld, H le Roux, H Pedro; K Ford, C Alcock; D Saayman, J Kirsten (capt), W Enslin, K Wiese, A du Preez, S Scott-Young, J Greeff, M Webber. Replacements: W Lessing for Enslin, 40; R Fourie for Ford, 42; M Winter for Kirsten, 80; R Loubscher for le Roux, 80.

British Isles: N Jenkins (Pontypridd and Wales); I Evans (Llanelli and Wales), J Guscott (Bath and England), W Greenwood (Leicester), N Beal (Northampton and England); G Townsend (Northampton and Scotland), R Howley (Cardiff and Wales); T Smith (Watsonians and Scotland), K Wood (Harlequins and Ireland), J Leonard (Harlequins and England, capt), G Weir (Newcastle and Scotland), S Shaw (Bristol and England), L Dallaglio (Wasps and England), S Quinnell (Richmond and Wales), R Hill (Saracens and England). Replacements: B Williams (Neath and Wales) for Wood, 67; T Underwood (Newcastle and England) for Evans, 67; J Davidson (London Irish and Ireland) for Shaw, 72.

Referee: A Turner (Western Province).

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