Rugby Union: Lions ambushed by 'the enforcer'

Chris Hewett reports from Durban on an early date with the hardest Springbok of all
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The Independent Online
The Lions have long harboured suspicions over the precise nature of Saturday's opening tour match with an Eastern Province Invitation XV and yesterday, they had their fears confirmed with knobs on. Those players with direct experience of the harsh realities of life on the wrong side of the Port Elizabeth tracks would not have been unduly surprised had their opponents named the Kray twins in their front row. One person they did not expect to see was Kobus Wiese.

By bolstering their pack with the presence of the most single-mindedly aggressive forward in Springbok rugby, the Eastern Province selectors sent the clearest possible message to Martin Johnson and his party. It read something like this: "The beach holiday is over. Welcome to the real South Africa."

As Derwyn Jones, the Welsh line-out specialist, found to his cost 18 months ago, Wiese, a Johannesburg restaurateur, is the man who put the hospital in hospitality. An accomplished practitioner of the law of the jungle, the 20st, second-row forward earned himself pounds 7,000 worth of notoriety - the first fine ever imposed on a Test player - by wiping out Jones from behind in the early stages of an ugly afternoon at Ellis Park and he remains the unashamed "enforcer" of the Springbok pack.

Eastern Province have not left it at that. Hennie le Roux, one of South Africa's most gifted midfield playmakers and a certainty for the Test series, has also accepted an invitation to play, as has Sam Scott-Young, a Wallaby hard nut of some distinction who was getting under the skin of Lions tourists as long ago as 1989. Far from being a gentle leg-stretcher, as the word "invitation" originally suggested, this match is fast developing into a no-holds-barred statement of Bokke intent.

Fran Cotton, the Lions manager, reacted to the news of Wiese's temporary switch from Transvaal with admirable restraint. "It looks to me as though the South African selectors want to see how his fitness levels are coming along," he said, well aware that Wiese has not played since suffering severe concussion during a Super 12 match with Auckland five weeks ago. But there is more to it than that. Far more.

Wiese is one of the key elements in the mind-game milieu of the tour, as well as the most forbidding physical obstacle confronting the Lions; in the Tests, he will directly oppose Johnson, the visiting captain, and the decision of Carel du Plessis, the Springbok coach, to make him available on day one is a clear attempt to force the pace on the psychological front. With eight games leading into the first Test in Cape Town on 21 June, Du Plessis' job will be made infinitely easier if the provincial sector punches its weight.

Not for the first time, Cotton finished yesterday's training session by calling for new standards of discipline from his squad. Indeed, a four- man disciplinary committee has been established - the coach, Ian McGeechan, and the Scottish national captain, Rob Wainwright, have seats along with Johnson and the manager - and any serious misdemeanour either on or off the pitch could result in the imposition of financial penalties.

"I sincerely hope the committee never has cause to meet," Cotton said, "but we are absolutely determined to ensure that the team stays focused throughout our stay here."

The manager is simply refusing to countenance a repeat of events towards the end of the last Lions tour in 1993, when a number of non-Test players abrogated all responsibility both before and during the midweek matches with two New Zealand provinces, Hawkes Bay and Waikato, and produced suitably embarrassing performances in both.

For all that, Cotton is giving the heavy-handed sergeant major approach a wide berth; wisely, he has allowed his players to thrash out their own code of conduct - there is no ban on alcohol, for example, but anyone found drinking at an inappropriate time is likely to feel the wrath of his fellow tourists - and has also implemented a system whereby senior squad members act as the management's barometer, passing on news and views from the rank and file at weekly meetings.

"Alcohol has its place on a rugby tour," said Wainwright with his customary air of polished sanity. "It can break down inhibitions for a start. You have to remember that for many of us rugby is the only thing we have in common; we have little common experience outside of the game, few common interests. Kept within reasonable bounds, a drink or two helps the process of familiarisation."

And if the odd beer fails to iron out any problems that might arise, the Lions can always make use of a visit to Robben Island planned for later in the tour. Presumably, Cotton will be counting them out and counting them back in again.