Rugby Union: Lions speed into the danger zone

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The Independent Online
The Lions enter the first danger zone of their South African safari here this afternoon and if they do not tread carefully and keep their wits about them, they will be eaten alive. If Eastern Province and Border were relative small fry and the real big game is still licking its lips up country, Western Province at least have the look about them of a hungry cheetah.

As befits the fastest side in domestic Springbok rugby, Harry Viljoen and his fellow selectors have named a back division that would not look out of place in an Olympic 100 metres final. The counter-attacking Justin Swart plays at full-back, Simon Berridge is in the starting blocks on the left wing and Percival Montgomery has his spikes on at outside-half. Percival who? Oh, just the most thrilling stand-off talent in South Africa, that's all.

If Montgomery survives what is by common consent the most intense examination of his brief career in the top flight, a lot of smart money will be backing him for a call-up into the full Springbok squad when it is announced on Monday night. With Carel du Plessis, the national coach, watching Montgomery's performance in front of a 45,000-strong crowd today, the Lions might save themselves future problems by cutting him down to size while they have the chance.

"We know Western Province represent a big step up in standard," Ieuan Evans, the Lions' elder statesman, said yesterday. It is Evans who must face Berridge, perhaps the quickest wing in the Springbok game, while John Bentley, out of position on the left flank, must shut down James Small, the time-honoured tough nut who helped South Africa to World Cup glory two years ago by putting the squeeze on Jonah Lomu. Today's wide contest will be instructive indeed.

Western Province have 14 straight victories in the bank and though none of those came at Super 12 level (they failed to qualify for this season's series) their confidence is high. "Teams go into a game against us thinking that we're no great shakes up front and then realise that we've put 10 tries past them," said Andrew Aitken, the Western Province back-row forward who played a Varsity Match for Oxford in 1993. "We're a pretty pacy outfit: certainly when it comes to a 70-metre sprint to the line, I'll back a guy like Simon Berridge every time."

Last Wednesday's dismal outing against Border was proof positive that the Lions also fancy their chances on the rapids. They have spent so much time developing a fast, interactive, top-of-the-ground style of rugby that when they found themselves up to their knees in mud in East London, they were unable to switch to the tight, limited tactics so familiar in the depths of a British winter. Ian McGeechan, the tourists' head coach, has repeatedly expressed his desire for an expansive approach. He will see how it stacks up against serious opposition today.

At least the Lions can look to their captain Martin Johnson for the first time on tour, and the presence of the Leicester lock should ensure a stronger, more aggressive approach in the set scrums. With Tim Rodber, the England No 8, also making his Lions bow after bouts of illness and injury, there is a fresh feel to a pack that suffered spluttering misfires in both early encounters.

Johnson brushed aside repeated Springbok accusations that the Lions forwards are underweight as well as under the weather. "There were some fantastic passages against Eastern Province and while we tried to play too much rugby against Border, it was the Lions pack that was going forwards in the last few minutes and we won the game as a result."

Should the Lions' unbeaten record still be in place as darkness falls on Table Mountain this evening, the psychological balance of the tour will have tilted towards Johnson and his merry band of adventurers.

Western Province: J Swart; J Small, R Fleck, R Muir (capt), S Berridge; P Montgomery, S Hatley; G Pagel, A Paterson, K Andrews, F van Heerden, H Louw, C Krige, A Aitken, R Brink.

LIONS: T Stimpson (Newcastle and England); I Evans (Llanelli and Wales), J Guscott (Bath and England), A Tait (Newcastle and Scotland), J Bentley (Newcastle and England); G Townsend (Northampton and Scotland), R Howley (Cardiff and Wales); G Rowntree (Leicester and England), B Williams (Richmond and Wales), J Leonard (Harlequins and England), M Johnson (capt; Leicester and England, capt), S Shaw (Bristol and England), L Dallaglio (Wasps and England), T Rodber (Northampton and England), R Hill (Saracens and England). Replacements: N Jenkins (Pontypridd and Wales), W Greenwood (Leicester), M Dawson (Northampton and England), M Regan (Bristol and England), P Wallace (Saracens and Ireland), S Quinnell (Richmond and Wales).