Rugby Union: Hill can set tone of tour for Lions

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The Independent Online
The South African phoney war gives way to full-scale hostilities this afternoon when the Lions confront a beefed-up Eastern Province outfit here and the medics are on red alert. Given that more than a sixth of the squad failed to survive the first five days of unopposed manoeuvres, it will be a minor miracle if those who see meaningful action in the Boet Erasmus trenches come through unscathed.

John Bentley, the Newcastle winger, and Scott Gibbs, the 1993 Lion from Swansea, both excused themselves from the threequarter line yesterday with minor ailments - a bruised toe for the former, a bruised thigh for the latter - and will be replaced by Ieuan Evans, who has seen it and done it so often at this level that he has an entire warehouse full of T-shirts, and Will Greenwood, who by comparison has seen next to nothing. He becomes the first uncapped Lion since Nigel Melville blazed all too brief a trail in New Zealand 14 years ago.

"You set goals for yourself at the start of every season and mine were to force a place in the England squad and perhaps push for a Lions spot from there," said the 24-year-old Leicester centre. "It's happened back to front but I'm not complaining."

Neither should he. His partner today will be Jeremy Guscott - "the first time I saw him play was in 1989, when he scored that wonderful try for the Lions in Australia," recalled the new boy - and some early fireworks against Hennie le Roux and company in the Easterns back line could well set a vibrant tone, not only for this tour but for next season's England campaign.

It will be an uncomfortable and edgy 80 minutes for Ian McGeechan and his coaching team as the first combination attempts to shed its inevitable inhibitions in perhaps the most malevolent of all the major South African rugby arenas. While McGeechan has seen gnarled campaigners like Evans, Guscott and Jason Leonard survive and thrive in the Lions pressure cooker, there is no way of knowing how the Greenwoods, Nick Beales and Tom Smiths of the team will cope.

In many ways, Richard Hill the England open-side flanker who turned 24 yesterday, will occupy the hottest seat of the lot this afternoon. To begin with, he is up against a distinctly useful opponent in Matthew Webber, Easterns' new recruit from the Auckland Blues - the reigning Super 12 champions who tend not to produce too many second-raters. More significant still, however, is the fact that Hill will be at the very epicentre of the breakdowns, where refereeing interpretations are so critical.

Andy Turner, an official from Western Province, is in control of today's match and if the Lions are to breeze out of South Africa's windy city with a nerve-settling win in the bag, Hill in particular will have to stay on his right side.

"I'll approach this in the same way as I go into any game," said the quick and resourceful Saracen. "That is to say, I'll read the referee as quickly as possible and play accordingly. The tackle area is definitely a point of issue at the moment, so I'll need to react to the demands of the situation."

If the private fears of the Lions' hierarchy about the whims and fancies of southern hemisphere officials are confirmed by Turner's performance this afternoon, the tourists' chances of surviving the far harder provincial games against Western Province, Northern Transvaal, Gauteng and Natal over the next two and a half weeks will be seriously compromised. In British rugby, players kill the ball at will, south of the Equator ball-killing is an arrestable offence. The culture shock could be of a very high voltage indeed.

According to Johan Kluyts, the Easterns coach, the Lions will find themselves short-circuited irrespective of their success in striking up an understanding with the referee. "I know we have the personnel to beat the Lions," he said yesterday as he enthused over his bristling batch of newcomers, headed by Theo van Rensburg at full-back, Willie Enslin at prop and Sam Scott- Young in the back row. "At last we have a team that can go on to the field with real confidence in each other. There is a hunger here."

With the man-eating Kobus Wiese temporarily installed in the Easterns' engine room, it was probably the last phrase the Lions wanted to hear. But they will meet bigger, faster and more cultured sides on this trip and failure to win by anything less than 15 points against an invitation line-up, albeit a dangerous one, would threaten the impressive sense of unity painstakingly developed this week on the sun-kissed beaches of Umhlanga.

They will not click instantly, but they badly need a show of force today. After all, it is 29 years since a Lions side lost anything other than a Test match in South Africa.

LIONS (v Eastern Province Invitation XV, Port Elizabeth, today): 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: T Underwood (Newcastle and England), M Dawson (Northampton and England), A Bateman (Richmond and England), P Wallace (Saracens and Ireland), B Williams (Richmond and Wales). J Davidson (London Irish and Ireland).

EASTERN PROVINCE XV: T van Rensburg; H Pedro, R van Jaarsveld, H le Roux, D Khayser; K Ford, C Alcock; D Saayman, J Kirsten, W Enslin, K Wiese, A du Preez, S Scott-Young, J Greef, M Webber. Replacements: R Laubscher, R Fourie, D Human, M van der Merwe, M Winter, W Lessing.

Referee: A. Turner (Western Province).

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