Rugby Union: Lions braced for battle on the front line

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The Independent Online
One of the least experienced forward packs in the colourful history of British Isles touring parties will march boldly into the unknown at Newlands this afternoon. By the end of what promises to be a ferocious encounter with a Springbok side roared on at multi-decibel level by the most fanatical rugby crowd in South Africa, the visitors will have discovered plenty about the reigning world champions and a whole lot more about themselves.

Jim Telfer, the forthright and occasionally acerbic assistant coach from the Scottish border country, was characteristically frank as he mused yesterday over the events about to unfold in the first Test. "Are we equipped to beat the South Africans?" he asked. "I'm not sure. No one can be sure. We are entering a tunnel and we simply don't know if we'll come out at the other end. But I think we've got the right selection and in rugby, if you select correctly you give yourself a chance of victory."

If those signals were rather less reassuring than might have been expected from one of the Lions' inner sanctum, Telfer was being no less than honest. The tour hierarchy has gambled from the moment they selected their original 35-man squad back in April and they are still playing simultaneous games of roulette, blackjack and stud poker as Test time approaches.

Many South African observers expect the Bokke front row in general, and Os du Randt in particular, to give Tom Smith, Keith Wood and Paul Wallace such an unholy hiding in the strong-arm phases of scrum, ruck and maul that Jason Leonard, second only to Ireland's Phil Orr as the most-capped prop forward of them all, will be on the field within 30 minutes of the kick-off. Indeed, Telfer himself accepted yesterday that if the Lions, especially those at the sharp end, were to prevail, they would have to withstand a first-quarter storm the like of which they had never encountered.

"Because of the atmosphere that has built up around this match and because of the fact that none of the selected Springboks have ever played against the Lions, we can expect a crescendo of energy to be released in the opening 20 minutes," he said. "Hopefully, some of that energy will be released by ourselves but we know that our concentration will have to be better than anything we have achieved before.

"Having said that, and having heard everything that has been put about on the subject of Du Randt and his colleagues, I believe we can scrummage lower than the Springboks and win parity. I also believe that with so many ball-players in the pack, we can attack them. No one annihilates a Springbok pack; history tells us that teams have generally beaten South Africa by moving them around the park. That is what we will set out to do and there is no room in this side for forwards who cannot give and take a pass in pressure situations."

Courageous talk, absolutely of a piece with the startlingly adventurous philosophy embraced by Telfer and Ian McGeechan since they touched down in Johannesburg last month. If it works - and success depends primarily on Smith, Wallace and the fast-improving Irish lock Jeremy Davidson, standing firm against bigger, meaner and massively motivated opponents - an exceptional Lions back division will indeed have a platform on which to construct a famous victory. But that "if" is approximately the size of the Western cape.

Even assuming the Celtic front row is still on its feet rather than its knees come the last 20 minutes, the Lions will still require top-notch performances from key decision-making players who were by no stretch of the imagination original first choices. The permanent loss of Scott Quinnell and Rob Howley, and the temporary unavailability of the youthful and exuberant Eric Miller, puts such intense pressure on Tim Rodber and Matt Dawson that it will be a minor miracle if they emerge unscathed. After all, Gary Teichmann and Joost van der Westhuizen are hardly workaday opponents.

If the link from Rodber at No 8 through to the quicksilver Gregor Townsend at outside-half is slick and well-oiled, the South Africans could find themselves on the wrong end of Neil Jenkins' right boot, not to mention an exhibition of Jeremy Guscott's heavily patented pyrotechnics. If, however, that link fails to operate smoothly, the heavy-duty Springbok tacklers - Ruben Kruger, Andre Venter, Henry Honiball and Japie Mulder - will have a field day. A painful prospect indeed.

The Lions may yet regret ignoring Allan Bateman, the classiest footballing centre in the party, for a game they simply must win to stand any chance of leaving South Africa with a Springbok head among their excess luggage. Scott Gibbs is a thunderous tackler and his inimitably physical approach will be of immense value this afternoon, but Bateman enjoys a big hit as much as the next man and is far more creative with ball in hand.

Still, the tourists have developed a happy knack of raising two fingers to the prophets of doom; certainly, there is not quite so much talk of a South African whitewash now as there was in the immediate aftermath of the curate's egg opener with Eastern Province five weekends ago. The smart money remains stacked behind a hard-fought Springbok victory this afternoon but then, who would have backed Tom Smith and Paul Wallace as Lions Test props this time last month?


at Newlands, Cape Town

A Joubert Natal 15 N Jenkins Pontypridd & Wales

J Small Western Province 14 I Evans Llanelli & Wales

J Mulder Gauteng 13 S Gibbs Swansea & Wales

E Lubbe Griqualand West 12 J Guscott Bath & England

A Snyman Northern Transvaal 11 A Tait Newcastle & Scotland

H Honiball Natal 10 G Townsend Northampton & Scotland

J van der Westhuizen N Transvaal 9 M Dawson Northampton & England

O du Randt Free State 1 T Smith Watsonians & Scotland

N Drotske Free State 2 K Wood Harlequins & Ireland

A Garvey Natal 3 P Wallace Saracens & Ireland

M Andrews Natal 4 M Johnson Leicester & England, capt

H Strydom Gauteng 5 J Davidson London Irish & Ireland

R Kruger Northern Transvaal 6 L Dallaglio Wasps & England

G Teichmann Natal, capt 8 T Rodber Northampton & England

A Venter Free State 7 R Hill Saracens & England

South African replacements: 16 R Bennett (Border), 17 B Wessels (Griqualand West), 18 W Swanepoel (Free State), 19 K Otto (Northern Transvaal), 20 J Dalton (Gauteng), 21 D Theron (Griqualand West).

Lions replacements: 16 J Bentley (Newcastle & England), 17 M Catt (Bath & England), 18 A Healey (Leicester & England), 19 R Wainwright (Watsonians & Scotland), 20 B Williams (Richmond & Wales), 21 J Leonard (Harlequins & England).

Referee: C Hawke (New Zealand). Kick-off: 4.15pm.