Rugby Union: Lions roll out supercharged Bentley

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The Barmy Army love him to bits, the headline writers consider him manna from heaven and the Springboks hold him in the deepest suspicion as an unpredictable force of nature. John Bentley's performance for the Lions over the past six weeks has generated more opinion than the single European currency and now that he is finally set to take centre stage, the clamour of vociferous debate will only increase.

A cult figure of Merv Hughes stature with a dash of Paul Gascoigne's cheek and a touch of Fred Trueman's bluff Yorkshire candour thrown in for good measure, the hyperactive wing from Dewsbury will replace the injured Ieuan Evans in the British Isles line-up to take on South Africa in what could be a decisive second Test here tomorrow. The occasion might have been made for him; any man who lists Spartacus as his favourite film is ready to put his body on the line for a good cause.

"I set out to make the Test side and I feel a sense of achievement, but the show is not over yet," he said yesterday after learning of his promotion by early-morning letter in the now customary Lions' fashion. "All I've been given is an opportunity and it's up to me to take it. To waste that opportunity would be criminal, both from a personal and a team point of view.

"In terms of profile and public interest, this will undoubtedly be the biggest game of my life. To play South Africa, the world champions, in their own back yard and be chasing a series victory? That's quite something in anyone's book.

"I'm playing well, I know that. I'm very critical of my own game - very critical indeed, because if I'm not, someone else will be - but when I look back over the tour so far, I don't see how it could have gone much better. I was disappointed with the Northern Transvaal display, not because I had a bad game but because I had no real opportunity to express myself. In general terms, my game against Gauteng wasn't that good, although the try I scored there was special. Even against the Emerging Springboks a week or so ago, the first half was pretty quiet. But the last 120 minutes of rugby have been good. Really good."

The Lions will need him to be even better if they are to close out the series by going two up with one to play, especially as the new Springbok back division will find it almost impossible to perform as dismally tomorrow as their predecessors did in Cape Town last Saturday. The South Africans may be uncomfortably aware of Bentley's priceless ability to break games open with his Rambo- esque running, but they also feel his flawed positional play leaves him vulnerable to the oblique angles favoured by the likes of Andre Joubert and Pieter Rossouw.

Still, Bentley has done far more right than wrong on this tour and his last three-try effort against Free State in Bloemfontein on Tuesday night was nothing short of spectacular. His first Lions cap will go with the two he earned with England in 1988 and the brace of Great Britain honours he won against France following his move to rugby league later that same year.

Bentley aside, the selectors have chosen to leave well alone in the wake of last weekend's courageous triumph at Newlands; Scott Gibbs and Jeremy Guscott continue in midfield despite the high-quality challenge of Allan Bateman while Tim Rodber hangs on at No 8, although Eric Miller's claims were considered long and hard by the tour hierarchy at their meeting on Wednesday night. Miller gets a place on the bench at the expense of Rob Wainwright and Neil Back is also included among the replacements as a result of the decision to keep an extra forward in reserve.

"The selection process was far harder than one might have imagined in the light of the Cape Town victory," Fran Cotton, the tour manager, admitted. "Our problems were the direct result of the quality of performance we produced in Bloemfontein, which simply re-emphasised how well virtually every player is going at the moment. There was a lot of debate over four or five positions, right wing and No 8 among them."

Cotton confirmed that Will Greenwood, the Leicester centre heavily concussed during the Free State match, would fly home on Sunday under strict instructions to avoid all contact sport for at least two months. Evans, who collapsed with a groin tear during training on Wednesday, will be sidelined for a similar length of time and it is now possible that the outstanding Welsh wing has played his last game of top-level rugby.

Tony Stanger, the Scottish centre/wing who scored a famous Grand Slam- winning try for his country against England at Murrayfield in 1990, has been placed on standby by the Lions management.

"There are only two games left after tomorrow's Test but we don't want to be exposed," Cotton said. "We'll look at the medical bulletins on Sunday before deciding whether we need Tony on board."

BRITISH ISLES (v South Africa, King's Park, tomorrow): N Jenkins (Pontypridd and Wales); J Bentley (Newcastle and England), 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). Replacements: M Catt (Bath and England), A Healey (Leicester and England), B Williams (Richmond and Wales), J Leonard (Harlequins and England), E Miller (Leicester and Ireland), N Back (Leicester and England).

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