Rugby Union: Howley effect checks Lions

Natal Sharks 12 British Lions 42
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The Independent Online
The Gods of rugby giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other. The Lions experienced a touch of heaven by the ocean as they dismantled Natal, supposedly the best provincial side in South Africa, piece by wretched piece on Saturday and, in the process, turned the flaming barbecues of the King's Park regulars into one big bonfire of the Super 12 vanities. Sadly for the tourists, one of their number finished the day in purgatory rather than paradise.

A quite outstanding victory could not have been move devastatingly, heartbreakingly undermined had Ian McGeechan suddenly taken pity on the South Africans and volunteered to coach the Springboks instead. Rob Howley, arguably the most potent threat to Bokke machohood since Willie John McBride flexed his biceps to the sound of the 99 call almost two and a half decades ago, flies home to Wales today with his dislocated shoulder in a sling and his spirits in shreds. Fran Cotton did not allow his own emotions off the leash - not publicly, at any rate - but he must have felt like saying: "Oh no, anyone but him.''

Howley, the one scrum-half on the planet worthy of going eyeball -to- eyeball with Joost van der Westhuizen, was denied that opportunity when, after just 10 minutes of Saturday's encounter, he crashed shoulder first into the elysian turf of South Africa's most striking rugby cathedral. He knew full well he was finished, but bravely gave it another three or four minutes before heading gingerly for the sanctuary of the touchline, from where he watched the remainder of the game in tears. According to James Robson, the Lions' resident medic, the Welshman was "distraught". Who could blame him?

Who, come to that, could blame the Lions as they celebrated a famous and utterly persuasive victory in roughly the same manner as Michael Howard might honour Ann Widdecombe's birthday. As an exercise in psychological one-upmanship over the now wary Boks, the tourists' three-try cruise was just about spot on but, with such a key attacking influence so cruelly snatched from them, any mind-game advantage the visitors established in Durban quickly evaporated into the warm and humid air.

Well as Matthew Dawson performed at the heels of a Lions eight that finally discovered the ways and means of dominating a South African pack after four weeks of firing nothing but blanks, Howley's departure was a sickening blow. Cardiff's one-man launchpad was hardly a stranger to serious injury and the tour hierarchy had attempted to guard their prized asset by allowing him to give a wide berth to the midweek matches against the strong-arm mobs up-country. All they required of him was to complete a regular Saturday stint and then rest up. So much for the protective qualities of cotton wool.

Still, the Lions may still be in better shape than the Boks as they begin their build-up to the opening Test in Cape Town this weekend. It was still unclear yesterday whether Gary Teichmann, the South African captain, and James Small, the force of nature from the western cape who operates on the right wing, would recover from hamstring injuries in time for the big day and, more encouragingly still from the tourists' point of view, the big guns of Bokke rugby are beginning to bitch and backbite amongst themselves.

Ian McIntosh, the chastened Natal coach, criticised Carel du Plessis, his Springbok counterpart, for refusing to release front-line internationals for the provincial matches. "I'll probably get into trouble for saying this but it wouldn't happen in New Zealand," he groaned. "When the Lions play one of our provinces, they should play its full strength." His message was clear: by keeping his top men under wraps, du Plessis has allowed the tourists to generate a momentum that, he fears, will carry them all the way to glory at Newlands in six days' time.

Certainly, that momentum was much in evidence from the kick-off at King's Park. Martin Johnson's forwards, stung into retaliatory action by the epic performance of their colleagues and rivals in Johannesburg on Wednesday night, took such an iron grip on proceedings that Neil Jenkins, in sublime form with the boot but on trial at full-back after losing his positional bearings in the opening tour match with Eastern Province last month, was not and could not be tested by the Natal half-backs.

Not once was Hans Scriba, persuaded out of retirement by the Natal selectors, able to pull the Welshman wide with raking diagonal kicks or make him chew his fingernails under a high, hanging bomb because whenever he received the ball from the laboured Robert du Preez, he received Richard Hill and Lawrence Dallaglio simultaneously. Scriba must now be wondering quite why he swapped his slippers for rugby boots.

Eric Miller played even better than his back-row partners, taking his Test opportunity with both hands by driving hard off the base of a secure scrummage and obliterating Natal's first-up tacklers without breaking stride. Keith Wood was very nearly as dynamic, Simon Shaw produced his best line-out return of the tour and Johnson looked fit, fast and ferocious. Just like old times - and not before time, either.

And behind them, Gregor Townsend was majestic. Not only did he land the first drop goal of the tour, score the Lions' first try by following up Wood's astute punt over a flat Natal defence and set up the second for Mike Catt with an equally wicked kick that turned Shaun Payne inside out behind his own posts, but he played with restraint as well as verve. Thanks to the efforts of the pack, Townsend did not need to raid his supply of pyrotechnics. Instead, he settled for quiet but complete authority.

"I don't think you ever establish total control in a game at this level, but I was pleased with the way the forwards took the ball up into contact and kept hold of it," Johnson said. "We did it better this time than last Saturday or the Saturday before that, so at least we're learning. We can't go overboard about this because we're here to win a Test series, but we can take a lot from the game.''

All very true. Sadly, the game took an awful lot from the Lions at the same time. He goes, in more senses than one, by the name of Rob Howley.

Natal: Penalties Lawless 4. British Isles: Tries Townsend, Catt, Dallaglio. Conversions Jenkins 3. Penalties Jenkins 6. Drop goal Townsend.

Natal: G Lawless; S Payne, J Thomson, P Muller, J Joubert; H Scriba, R du Preez; A-H le Roux, J Allan, R Kempson, J Slade, N Wegner, W van Heerden, D Kriese, W Fyvie (capt). Replacements: R Strudwick for van Heerden, 29; J Smit for le Roux, 76.

BRITISH LIONS: N Jenkins (Pontypridd and Wales); I Evans (Llanelli and Wales), A Bateman (Richmond and Wales), S Gibbs (Swansea and Wales), A Tait (Newcastle and Scotland); G Townsend (Northampton and Scotland), R Howley (Cardiff and Wales); T Smith (Watsonians and Scotland), K Wood (Harlequins and Ireland), D Young (Cardiff and Wales), M Johnson (Leicester and England, capt), S Shaw (Bristol and England), L Dallaglio (Wasps and England), E Miller (Leicester and Ireland), R Hill (Saracens and England). Replacements: M Dawson (Northampton and England) for Howley, 13; M Catt (Bath and England) for Bateman, 66; J Leonard (Harlequins and England) for Smith, 67.

Referee: J Meuwesen (Eastern Province).

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