Rugby Union: Leonard given Lions captaincy as Rodber returns to scene of crime

Click to follow
Virgin territory for a dozen new Lions, an uncomfortable feeling of deja vu for Tim Rodber. Three years after leaving Port Elizabeth in disgrace following his dismissal in the now infamous Battle of Boet Erasmus - "What do you have to do to get sent off around here?" he asked the referee that night, only to find out for himself a couple of minutes later - the England No 8 returns to the same stadium on Saturday for the opening fixture of the tour.

No wonder Rodber was feeling queasy yesterday; confined to his hotel room with a feverish high temperature, the Northampton captain was probably the victim of cold sweats as well as hot ones as he contemplated another meeting with Eastern Province. "The incidents that occurred in the England game in Port Elizabeth in 1994 are an irrelevance," insisted Fran Cotton, the Lions manager. Maybe, but old indignities die hard and Rodber would be less than human were he not to fall prey to some bitter memories between now and the weekend.

Many will argue that Cotton and his fellow selectors should have exercised some diplomacy and allowed Rodber to sit this one out, but they were right to take the opposite view. By picking England's Five Nations' back row en bloc, they have given themselves their best chance of hitting the ground running and dealing with a home side crammed with ringers.

Ian McGeechan, the coach, always planned to make full use of established combinations in the early games and he was true to his principles yesterday. Jeremy Guscott and Scott Gibbs, the 1993 Test centres in New Zealand, renew their acquaintance on Saturday while Keith Wood and Jason Leonard bring their Harlequins club partnership to the front row.

With Martin Johnson opting for a breather after a 40-match domestic campaign - no English club player gave more of himself last season than the Leicester lock - Leonard has been awarded the captaincy. "This is a high-pressure game and Jason has enormous experience," Cotton said. "He knows what it is to run out in front of 45,000 people away from home and that knowledge will be invaluable."

While Cotton stressed that Leonard should not be considered a de facto vice-captain, it is clear that he is highly prized as a senior tourist. "It's a massive honour and one I didn't expect to receive," said the universally popular and deeply respected prop. "While this game can only be seen as a big challenge - I don't expect any easy matches in South Africa - there are a number of very experienced players in the line-up and that helps.

"I'll have a quiet word in one or two ears before the game but we all know why we're here."

Leonard's role is one of the most intriguing aspects of the tour. Equally capable on both sides of the scrum, he will play at tight-head, his current position for both club and country, against the Easterns. But he suggested before the tour that he might well switch to loose-head at some stage - he shifted in the opposite direction with enormous effect when the Lions took on the All Blacks four years ago - and left the question hanging once again yesterday. "Who knows what lies around the corner," he said, cryptically.

The Springboks, firm believers that successful rugby starts in the front row, consider the Lions to be short of clout up front and are confident of uncovering a weakness or two at the sharp end. If Tom Smith, the Scottish new boy, and Graham Rowntree, the current England loose-head, fail to impress early on, they may well find Leonard on their case as well as a meaty South African or two.

Only Paul Grayson, the outside-half from Northampton, was not considered for the opener. He has survived a couple of punishing, full-contact training sessions on firm surfaces and if the strained muscle in his right thigh continues to respond to treatment, he will almost certainly face Border in East London on Wednesday.

Johan Kluyts, the Eastern Province coach, confirmed yesterday that two celebrated Springboks from Transvaal, Kobus Wiese and Hennie le Roux, would square up to the Lions on Saturday and also picked Theo van Rensburg, the former Test full-back, and Matthew Webber, a highly rated flanker from New Zealand, in his starting line-up.

Rian van Jaarsveld, a promising centre, and Armand de Preez, a second row forward with a colourful disciplinary record outside of the game as well as inside it, have returned to Port Elizabeth after spells at Transvaal while Ken Ford plays at outside-half under the terms of a mould-breaking twinning agreement between the two provinces.

LIONS (v Eastern Province, Port Elizabeth, Saturday): N Jenkins; J Bentley, J Guscott, S Gibbs, N Beal; G Townsend, R Howley; T Smith, K Wood, J Leonard (capt), G Weir, S Shaw, L Dallaglio, T Rodber, R Hill. Substitutes: T Underwood, A Bateman, M Dawson, P Wallace, B Williams, S Quinnell.