Rugby Union: Lions in land of make-believe

South Africa 16 British Isles 25

His alarmingly severe haircut and haunted expression gives him the appearance of an extra from Dr Zhivago and up until nine days ago, Matt Dawson looked every inch a Lions extra into the bargain. That was then.

The Northampton scrum-half's Test-turning try in Cape Town on Saturday not only gave the British Isles a better than even chance of squeezing out a wholly unexpected series victory over the reigning world champions but, almost at a stroke, resurrected an individual career that had virtually imploded in a morass of injury and bitter frustration.

The Lions must still win another Test to transform a wild dream into even wilder reality and with the Springbok mood now as dark as pitch, that objective will be desperately difficult to realise. Irrespective of events over the next two weekends, however, Dawson's name is back in lights.

Rob Howley, everyone's first-choice scrum-half until his accident during the victory over Natal, could not conceivably have pierced the South African defence with more confidence or more swagger than the shaven-headed Saint displayed as the clock ticked down at Newlands. Hell, Gareth Edwards would have struggled to match it.

Dawson's sublime moment of inspiration will be recalled as long as Lions' Tests remain a feature in the cluttered landscape of international rugby; the quicksilver sidestep to escape the clutches of the Springbok terminator, Ruben Kruger, on the short side of a scrum, the perfect diagonal line to create space for Ieuan Evans' distracting inside run, the one-handed sucker-punch dummy that left Gary Teichmann wearing the dunce's hat and, finally, the gentle leg-stretching canter to the right corner. Phew. Some effort for a supposed no-hoper.

"I haven't got away with one of those for a very long time," grinned the 24-year-old Liverpudlian whose all-round sporting aptitude as a teenager allowed him to play right-back for Chelsea boys, wicketkeeper for Buckinghamshire and, no doubt, to walk on water at the local swimming pool. "The most important part of the try's creation was the platform established by the forwards at the scrum. The initial 10 metres were always going to be the most difficult and the efforts of the pack allowed me to get an outside arc past Kruger."

Was the dummy deliberate? "Yes. But then, I would say that, wouldn't I?"

Coming as it did just seven minutes from the end of a psychologically debilitating and physically exhausting contest, Dawson's piece de resistance left the shattered Boks with nowhere to turn. As in every other match on this tour the Lions finished the stronger and Alan Tait's straightforward injury-time run-in in the left corner - Scott Gibbs' piledriving run into the South African 22 paved the way - was no more than the tourists deserved.

Not simply because they showed more wit and imagination during the nerve- shredding endgame but because for the previous 70 minutes, they had defended the stockade as though their lives depended on it.

"One of the biggest lessons we've learned on this tour is how to play well without the ball," said Ian McGeechan, the Lions' coach. "Our defence was awesome in the sense that all the players were in on it; they refused to panic and stayed behind the back foot even when the pressure was pouring down on us. We conceded one penalty for offside defending in the whole match. One. Now that is what I call discipline."

With knobs on, actually. Apart from Gibbs' mistimed tackle on Teichmann, which led directly to Russell Bennett's try on 44 minutes, the Lions were utterly secure in their first-up hits and magnificently committed whenever their cover defence was called into action. The sight of Dawson, a veritable waif and stray in the company of the ogreish Springboks, bringing Os du Randt to earth deep inside the Lions 22 was inspiration enough, but it was Keith Wood's staggering performance in the loose that fatally undermined South African attempts to generate a modicum of momentum.

The Irish hooker did everything right in the set-piece, too, although he later confessed to being more than a little concerned for his immediate safety as the Bokke front row charged like a buffalo herd into the opening set-pieces. Those early scrums aside, however, Wood and his prop forward colleagues gave away next to nothing at the tight. "They really took us on at the start, hitting us and driving us very hard and very quickly," said Martin Johnson, the Lions captain. "It was unnerving - when they got the weight on they were as strong as anything I've ever encountered - but we knew if we could ride the storm, they couldn't scrummage like that all match."

What was more, the Lions' line-out worked rather more efficiently than that of the Springboks', especially during a second half in which Jeremy Davidson gave Mark Andrews and Hannes Strydom a serious seeing-to in the ball-winning arena. As a result, sheer frustration put the South Africans on the wrong side of the New Zealand referee, Colin Hawke, and with Neil Jenkins in sound kicking form, the Lions were able to interest the scoreboard at regular intervals.

Not that the Boks were entirely sterile; Kruger and Teichmann played big games in the home back row and the fearsome Du Randt looked every bit as capable as the fanatical Bokke hordes had warned. His opening try from close range on 23 minutes was executed with almost surgical efficiency and Teichmann's craftsmanship in freeing Bennett, a half-time replacement for Edrich Lubbe, for his side's second score showed the South African captain at his most threatening.

There were, then, occasional glimpses of the Springboks in world champion mode and the Lions know full well that the likes of Naka Drotske, Adrian Garvey, Andre Venter, James Small and Andre Jubert will not perform so anonymously when the heat goes on in Durban this Saturday. Traditionally, South African Test teams raise their standards in direct proportion to the degree of pressure under which they find themselves and now that they have the task of saving the endangered skin of Carel du Plessis, their new coach, they will be ready to play out of their own skins at King's Park.

That thought should be enough to keep the Lions' paws firmly on the savannah. McGeechan's post-match euphoria - "above anything else in rugby, a Lions' Test victory is something to savour" - was entirely understandable, but so too was Johnson's narrow-eyed grasp of cold reality. "It's no good winning one Test and losing two," he muttered. "When we get a second one in the bag, we'll have something to shout about."

South Africa: Tries Du Randt, Bennett; Penalties Lubbe, Honiball. British Isles: Tries Dawson, Tait; Penalties Jenkins 5.

SOUTH AFRICA: A Joubert (Natal); J Small (Western Province), J Mulder (Gauteng), E Lubbe (Griqualand West), A Snyman (Northern Transvaal); H Honiball (Natal), J van der Westhuizen (Northern Transvaal); P du Randt (Free State), N Drotske (Northern Transvaal), A Garvey (Natal), H Strydom (Gauteng), M Andrews (Natal), R Kruger (Northern Transvaal), G Teichmann (Natal, capt), A Venter (Free State). Replacement: R Bennett (Border) for Lubbe, h-t.

BRITISH ISLES: N Jenkins (Pontypridd and Wales); I Evans (Llanelli and Wales), J Guscott (Bath and England), S Gibbs (Swansea and Wales), A Tait (Newcastle and Scotland); G Townsend (Northampton and Scotland), M Dawson (Northampton and England); T Smith (Watsonians and Scotland), K Wood (Harlequins and Ireland), P Wallace (Saracens and Ireland), M Johnson (Leicester and England, capt), J Davidson (London Irish and Ireland), L Dallaglio (Wasps and England), T Rodber (Northampton and England), R Hill (Saracens and England). Replacement: J Leonard (Harlequins and England) for Smith, 80.

Referee: C Hawke (New Zealand).

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