Rugby Union: Lions look to run in a whitewash

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The Lions return to the foot of the mountain at Ellis Park this afternoon and this time, they will have to drag their exhausted limbs up the rockface without the benefit of oxygen. Were it not for the fact that they stand on the brink of a historic rugby achievement, few would give them a price of surviving trial by Springbok for the third week running, especially at altitude on the high veld.

But that is precisely where Martin Johnson and his remarkably cohesive band of brothers do stand, for victory this afternoon would condemn the South Africans to a first whitewash since W E Maclagen's Lions won four Tests off the reel in 1891.

With that glorious carrot dangling before their very eyes, the tourists are more hungry, more motivated than anyone had a right to expect in the light of their series-clinching heroics in Durban last weekend.

"It would be bitterly disappointing to let it slip now," said Lawrence Dallaglio yesterday. "The Boks will take a tremendous amount of beating because they have nothing more to lose on the one hand and a lot to look forward to on the other.

"They face the All Blacks in a fortnight, the players need to stake their claim for a place in that match and a win over us would restore some of their confidence.

"I've never seen a Springbok side anything less than 100 per cent committed and they'll be no different for this one, but the thought of making our little piece of history is the overriding factor that has spurred everyone on this week. It will be hard, perhaps harder than any other match on this tour, but we're up for it."

If the England flanker can reproduce the definitive performance he contributed last weekend and, at the same time, forge an immediate understanding with the promoted Neil Back, the Lions have the weaponry to pressurise a Bokke back row deprived of the services of the injured Ruben Kruger. That in turn would give Mike Catt, Scott Gibbs and Jeremy Guscott an opportunity to stretch their legs in attack and involve John Bentley and Tony Underwood into the bargain.

"That's the game plan," agreed Guscott, who equals the great Mike Gibson's record of eight Lions caps as a centre when he takes the field in Johannesburg. "It would be nice to think we'll see our backline run some ball, mainly because we want to play in a style the Springboks have not encountered from us so far. It will be difficult, though; having already won the series, this match is a test of our own character as much as anything else."

It will be a test of character for the Boks, too. They have lost Andre Joubert, the Rolls Royce of full-backs, to a groin injury sustained in training on Thursday - Russell Bennett, a try-scorer in the first match of the rubber in Cape Town, replaces him - and, with Mark Andrews likely to be very conspicuous indeed by his absence from the South African engine room, they are fielding their least prepossessing line-up of the series.

Jim Telfer, the Lions' assistant coach, has no truck with South African problems; in his view, the outcome rests in the hands, or rather the minds, of his own team. "It depends on us," he said. "It's been a big task getting the mental side of things right in the wake of Durban; if you look at the way we played in Welkom on Tuesday, we leaked tries that we simply wouldn't have conceded earlier in the tour when the series was a live issue. But we have a lot of young players, especially in the pack, who should realise that they are only half-way to realising their potential. This will be another instructive experience for them."

As it will be for the whole of Northern hemisphere rugby. To win a series in South Africa is one thing, but to turn over the Boks at Fortress Ellis is something else again. The All Blacks achieved pretty much everything last season, but they did not survive Jo'burg. If the Lions prevail this afternoon, they will deserve to be held in awe.

n Martin Johnson has pulled out of the England side to play Australia in Sydney next Saturday. The lock forward had been advised by doctors not to put off any longer the groin operation he had delayed to go on the Lions tour. His replacement is the Coventry lock Danny Grewcock, who recently made his international debut on the tour to Argentina.

SOUTH AFRICA v LIONS

at Ellis Park, Johannesburg

R Bennett Border 15 N Jenkins Pontypridd & Wales

A Snyman Northern Transvaal 14 J Bentley Newcastle & England

P Montgomery Western Province 13 S Gibbs Swansea & Wales

D van Schalkwyk N Transvaal 12 J Guscott Bath & England

P Rossouw Western Province 11 T Underwood Newcastle & England

J de Beer Free State 10 M Catt Bath & England

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

P du Randt Free State 1 T Smith Watsonians & Scotland

J Dalton Gauteng 2 M Regan Bristol & England

D Theron Griqualand West 3 P Wallace Saracens & Ireland

H Strydom Gauteng 4 M Johnson Leicester & England, capt

K Otto Northern Transvaal 5 J Davidson London Irish & Ireland

J Erasmus Free State 6 L Dallaglio Wasps & England

G Teichmann Natal, capt 8 T Rodber Northampton & England

A Venter Free State 7 N Back Leicester & England

Referee: W Erickson (Australia). Kick-off: 4.15 (BST)

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