Rugby Union: Pienaar pines for Lynagh

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The Independent Online
Try this scenario for size. Francois Pienaar completes his first full season as a front-line coach by steering Saracens to the inaugural Allied Dunbar Premiership title. Suitably impressed, the folk back home on the high veldt sweep their favourite son into the Springbok job before his feet can touch the ground and, after rewarding them with the 1999 World Cup, he runs for the South African presidency, wins by a landslide and lives happily ever after on a private vineyard in Stellenbosch.

Well, why not? If the bookmakers are prepared to offer odds on Tiger Woods getting his feet under the White House table by the year 2020 - and not as a paying guest of Bill Clinton, either - who are we to impose limits on the potential further achievements of rugby's Golden Nugget? After all, it was Nelson Mandela who dressed up as Pienaar, not the other way round.

If Pienaar's coaching career really is less than a week old, he must be the fastest learner since Michael Schumacher took his driving test. Although Sarries collected a fifth successive kick in the teeth by losing 22-18 at Leicester on Saturday - at this rate they will soon require a complete set of dentures - they played with such heart-warming pride and purpose, particularly up front, that the signs of an immediate Bokke influence were almost tangible.

Not that the Great Man can afford to treat the hot seat like an armchair. Six days into his new role as player-coach, he is up there on the high wire; not only must he recruit intelligently to bolster his front row and provide adequate cover for the increasingly injury-prone Michael Lynagh, but he must also work within the confines of a severely truncated first- team squad. The word from Southgate is that Sarries, among the most extravagant of this season's big spenders, could start the 1997-98 campaign with a playing staff of fewer than 30.

Such downsizing would be no laughing matter in an increasingly merciless age of acute fixture congestion but, then, Pienaar is not in this for giggles. If events at Welford Road left him distinctly po-faced - "I'm proud of the character of our performance and we produced some encouraging rugby, but it's a heartbreaker when you let it slip so late in the day" - there was enough vim and vigour about the performances of Paul Wallace, Paddy Johns and the exceptionally potent loose pairing of Tony Diprose and Richard Hill to offer genuine hope for the future.

Muna Ebongalame, Wallace and Pienaar himself all crossed the Tigers' line in the opening 40 minutes and it was no more than the visitors deserved. Ebongalame, a particularly slippery left wing from Cameroon, might easily have stolen a second after the break had the ball bounced at all kindly for him and, as Bob Dwyer, the Leicester coach, was happy to admit afterwards, the Tigers did not so much get out of jail as stage a mass escape from Alcatraz.

Ironically, Leicester squeezed out a scarcely-merited victory as a direct result of the misfortunes and misdemeanours suffered and committed by the two Saracen Wallabies who scored all 12 Australian points when Dwyer coached his home country to victory in the 1991 World Cup final at Twickenham. Michael Lynagh's early departure with a scratched cornea in his right eye deprived the Londoners of their most reliable matchwinner - once again, Andy Lee proved miserably ineffective as a replacement marksman - and Tony Daly's inability to handle a pumped-up Darren Garforth at the set- piece handed the Tigers a 63rd-minute penalty try that ultimately saved their bacon.

Sadly, Daly is nowhere near the loose-head prop he was six years ago. Even more depressingly from the Saracens angle, Lynagh cannot accumulate points from the front row of the stand or the physiotherapist's slab - the two locations in which he is most often to be found these days. As Pienaar said reflectively after watching John Liley outscore Lee 17-0 in the all-important shoot-out: "If you have a goalkicker who is kicking his goals, you are always in with a chance of winning."

For Dwyer, the rub of the green ended a week and a half of unmitigated misery. A Heineken Cup place is back on the cards and although he has enough walking wounded on his books to open up a lucrative sideline as a GP fundholder - Eric Miller's ankle ligaments are the latest worry - he is confident of getting enough of his best players on the pitch simultaneously to make a decent fist of the cup final on 10 May.

"Our confidence took a knock with those three consecutive league defeats but at some point we had to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and start playing," he said. "Confidence isn't a gift from God. I don't think God's that interested in our problems, to be honest with you. The players have to do it themselves.

"I wasn't too happy at the break, that's for sure; in fact, I had to ask the forwards if any of them were interested in giving Martin Johnson a helping hand out there or whether they were happy to let him play the second half on his own, too. Thankfully, we pulled things round a little from there on in and applied enough pressure to win. Under the circumstances, I'll happily take the two points."

And would Johnson be in any condition, come the end of the season, to turn in performances of similar virtuosity for the Lions down there in Pienaar country? "I think we'll just concern ourselves with keeping him fit for the cup final and then let Fran Cotton and Ian McGeechan do the worrying," Dwyer said. A hard game, rugby, and getting harder by the second.

Leicester: Try Penalty try; Conversion J Liley; Penalties J Liley 5. Saracens: Tries Ebongalame, P Wallace, Pienaar; Penalty Lynagh.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, N Malone, C Joiner, R Underwood; R Liley, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), M Poole, J Wells, E Miller (W Drake-Lee, 67), N Back.

Saracens: M Singer; R Wallace, P Sella, S Ravenscroft, M Ebongalame; M Lynagh (A Lee, 17), K Bracken; A Daly (A Olver, 64), G Botterman, P Wallace, P Johns (C Yandell, 58), A Copsey, F Pienaar, A Diprose (capt), R Hill.

Referee: C White (Cheltenham).

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