Rugby Union: Lions laid low on high veld

Storm clouds gather over tour party after first defeat of South African trip and disciplinary threat to key centre
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The Independent Online
Northern Transvaal 35

British Isles 30

The wheels finally worked themselves free of the Lions' bandwagon here yesterday, and it may take more than the odd mechanical tweak to fix them back on. Martin Johnson's men contributed fully to a stunning encounter at Loftus Versfeld, the mighty cathedral of Afrikaaner rugbydom, and lost by only five miserable points, but the lessons for the rest of the tour far outweighed the margin of defeat.

Hit-and-miss performances of the curate's egg variety will certainly not be enough to beat the Springboks. It can be said with conviction that the other three South African Super 12 provinces - Gauteng, Natal and Free State - will also inflict sickening blows to the visitors' morale unless the Lions dramatically reduce their cock-up quota.

Once again, there were glimpses of genius from Rob Howley, Gregor Townsend and the incomparable Jeremy Guscott. Alan Tait also had his moments after a rough opening quarter and if Simon Shaw and Lawrence Dallaglio were less effective than at Newlands eight days ago, it was not by much. But for all their attacking brilliance, key Lions performers lost possession at key moments, and the Blue Bulls, who were without five current Springboks, accepted the free gifts with gratitude.

Sadly for Townsend, who played magically at times, the killer score resulted from one of his occasional errors. His bold decision to run a scrum ball on his own 22 after 56 minutes backfired when Danie van Schalkwyk intercepted the Scotsman's pass to Tait and finished off under the posts. That put the Bulls 32-20 ahead and with Casper Steyn adding his third penalty 13 minutes from time, Townsend's own try shortly before the final whistle proved too little, too late.

For the first time since the deluge in East London, the Lions' ball retention went absent without leave. With it went their continuity - they badly missed Richard Hill on the open-side flank - and, as a result, things that worked out beautifully for Tim Stimpson, Tait and Townsend against Western Province last weekend turned turtle on them in the furnace of the high veld.

Stimpson suffered early on, missing his first shot at goal after three minutes, spilling his first high ball to give the Bulls a dangerous attacking platform four minutes later and then mistiming his tackle on Steyn as the razor-sharp left wing took advantage of a perfectly calculated angle from Graeme Bouwer to sprint in from 45 metres.

That put the home side eight points clear - Steyn had landed a fine penalty after 12 minutes - but the Lions could have been in even deeper trouble. Roland de Marigny, a French-speaking stand-off from Mauritius, sliced open the tourists' defence in the eighth minute only to see Wynand Lourens harshly denied a try. Andre Watson, the referee, thwarted Lourens with another marginal call midway through the half when he adjudged Van der Walt's pass to have been forward.

Even so, Steyn's second penalty meant the Lions were 11 points to the bad before Guscott's initial strike offered the tourists some much-needed encouragement. The try was both sublime and ridiculous; the Bath centre's vision in chipping over the Bulls' midfield deserved a seven-point score but Bouwer's failure to snuff out the danger was embarrassing. The full- back made up for his faux pas on the half-hour, appearing near the Lions' 22 to create a three-on-one overlap from which the impressive Van Schalkwyk twisted over for his opening try. Eleven points adrift at the interval, the haunted expressions on the tourists' faces were proof of the demands of Super 12-style rugby.

To their credit, the Lions improved substantially after the break and even though Adriaan Richter, the Bulls' captain and focal point of a powerful back row, galloped over at the right flag a minute into the second half, there was a self-belief about the visitors that kept the pot boiling. Townsend's midfield break from Shaw's clean line-out delivery on 44 minutes was cleverly tracked by Guscott, who appeared on the stand-off's left shoulder to cruise past the cover and touch down under the posts.

Two Stimpson penalties brought the Lions within a score, but Van Schalkwyk's second debilitating strike took the Bulls home in gripping fashion.

l Piet Olivier, the Northern Transvaal manager, confirmed last night that Scott Gibbs, the Lions centre, had been cited for a punch on Grant Esterhuizen during yesterday's match. A three-man panel viewed video evidence last night to decide whether Gibbs had a case to answer. If the case goes ahead, a disciplinary panel will be convened urgently. Last week, the Lions' management demanded action from the Mpumalanga provincial union against two of its players, Marius Bosman and Elandre van der Bergh, following violent incidents during the tour match at Witbank. Mpumalanga's decision is expected tomorrow night.

Northern Transvaal: G Bouwer; W Lourens, J Schutte, D van Schalkwyk, C Steyn; R de Marigny, C Breytenbach; L Campher, H Tromp, P Boer, D Grobbelaar, D Badenhorst, N van der Walt, A Richter (capt), S Bekker. Replacements: G Esterhuizen for Lourens, 31; G Laufs for Grobbelaar, 39; J Brooks for Tromp, h-t; R Schroeder for van der Walt, 65; M Proudfoot for Boer, 71.

British Isles: T Stimpson (Newcastle and England); J Bentley (Newcastle and England), J Guscott (Bath and England), A Tait (Newcastle and Scotland), T Underwood (Newcastle and England); G Townsend (Northampton and Scotland), R Howley (Cardiff and Wales); G Rowntree (Leicester and England), M Regan (Bristol and England), J Leonard (Harlequins and England), M Johnson (Leicester and England, capt), S Shaw (Bristol and England), L Dallaglio (Wasps and England), S Quinnell (Richmond and Wales), E Miller (Leicester and Ireland). Replacements: S Gibbs (Swansea and Wales) for Bentley, 60; D Young (Cardiff and Wales) for Leonard, 74.

Referee: A Watson (Eastern Transvaal).

Lions on tour

Results: 24 May: Easter Province XV 11 Lions 39. 28 May: Border 14 Lions 18. 31 May: Western Province 21 Lions 38; 4 June: Mpumalanga 14 Lions 64; 7 June: Lions 30.

Remaining fixtures: 11 June Transvaal (Johannesburg); 14 June: Natal (Durban); 17 June Emerging Springboks (Wellington); 21 June First Test (Cape Town); 24 June: Free State (Bloemfontein); 28 June: Second Test (Durban); 1 July: Northern Free State (Welkom); 5 July: Third Test (Johannesburg).