Rugby Union: Lion cubs told to bare their teeth

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Mpumalanga, a Zulu word for "the place where the sun rises", may sound inviting enough but as is usual in the boots and all world of South African rugby, the reality is rather more menacing. If the Lions are to extend their unbeaten tour record in Witbank this afternoon, one or two young pups will will have to take on the mantle of fighting dogs.

Jim Telfer, the Lions assistant coach, knows that to be the case. Hence the brutal session to which he subjected his forwards in Pretoria on Monday: 46 set-pieces in 42 minutes against a state-of-the-art scrummaging machine equipped not only with the ability to push back but, it seemed, to make strong men cry as well. "It was as high on the intensity scale as you can get," said Telfer, a faintly sadistic smile accompanying his rich Borders brogue.

"To my mind, there are two types of players: the honest ones and the others. The first category set standards for themselves, look at themselves in the mirror and each other in the eye, don't go in search of excuses when things get hard but pick themselves up and do something about it. The point about Monday's scrummaging was that it could be regarded as money in the bank; those players involved now know that they can reach that level again if necessary. A number of doubts will have been erased from their minds."

All of which is fine in theory, but the acid test arrives at altitude this afternoon. South-Eastern Transvaal, as Mpumalanga were known when they put nearly 50 points on Wales a little under two years ago, are no one's idea of fun. According to Andrew Aitken, the Western Province player who performed so brilliantly against the Lions in Cape Town last weekend, they possess a "desperately hard pack of forwards who don't mind mixing it" and if past experience is anything to go by, high veldt games against relatively unsung up-country outfits tend to be a little on the tasty side.

It is essential, therefore, that the Lions translate their training pitch scrummaging to the field of play - something they have signally failed to achieve in the three matches to date. Today, the burden of responsibility falls on young shoulders: those of Tom Smith, the diminutive loose-head prop from Edinburgh, and Paul Wallace, the Irish Saracen who starts a match for the first time. If they stand firm against what is certain to be a fearful buffeting, the morale of the entire party will move up another notch.

No one in the party is in more need of a morale transfusion than Nick Beal, the Northampton utility back who was all but written off by the Lions' hierarchy on Sunday because of tendonitis in his right knee and an outbreak of shin splints. Indeed, Fran Cotton, the tour manager, indicated that unless Beal removed all concerns over his fitness against Mpumalanga, he could expect to be back in the east Midlands almost as quickly as his clubmate, Paul Grayson.

Intriguingly, Beal put a rather different complexion on things yesterday. "I don't have shin splints and while my right knee flared up for a couple of days last week, I haven't had a problem since. I'm confident I can last the pace and go the distance, mainly because there is no earthly reason why I shouldn't, and as I'm playing this game at full-back rather than on the left wing, I'll find it easier to get involved than against Eastern Province in the opening match. I'm looking forward to it."

Which is more than can be said for Kobus Wiese, the strong-arm Springbok lock who is now contemplating life as a bit-part actor on the fringes of the Lions series rather than as a main protagonist. Left out of the 27-man squad announced by Carel du Plessis on Monday night, Wiese reacted in typically confrontational style yesterday.

"This is the last straw," he said. "I've had offers from overseas and have put them on temporary hold, but I have a future to think about and it does not seem to be here. How many more times am I expected to prove myself? I had no idea I would be left out; there never seemed to be any indication that I would not be part of Carel's plans. I'm stunned and emotional."

Wiese is now likely to captain the Gauteng provincial side against the Lions at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, next Wednesday night. Given the fact that he will need to take out his frustrations on someone, the tourists are probably praying that du Plessis has a swift change of heart.

MPUMALANGA (v British Isles, today, 2.15. Witbank): E von Gericke; J Visage, R Potgieter, G Gendall, P Nel; R As, D van Zyl; H Swart, H Kemp, A Botha, M Bosman, E van der Bergh, F Rossouw, P Joubert, T Oosthuizen.

BRITISH ISLES: N Beal (Northampton and England); I Evans (Llanelli and Wales), A Bateman (Richmond and Wales), W Greenwood (Leicester), T Underwood (Newcastle and England); N Jenkins (Pontypridd and Wales), M Dawson (Northampton and England); T Smith (Watsonians and Scotland), K Wood (Harlequins and Ireland), P Wallace (Saracens and Ireland), G Weir (Newcastle and Scotland), J Davidson (London Irish and Ireland), R Wainwright (Watsonians and Scotland), N Back (Leicester and England), T Rodber (capt; Northampton and England). Replacements: J Guscott (Bath and England), G Townsend (Northampton and Scotland), A Healey (Leicester and England), D Young (Cardiff and Wales), M Regan (Bristol and England), S Quinnell (Richmond and Wales).

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