Rugby Union: Regan and Williams stir Lions blood with fracas

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The Independent Online
Who said the ninety-nine call was dead and buried? The principle behind Willie John McBride's famous "one in, all in" strategy circa 1974 was that the Lions should vent their collective spleen on their South African opponents, but on the evidence of yesterday's savage training session here, the 1997 vintage are just as happy to knock seven bells out of each other.

After an unexpectedly conciliatory opening match in Port Elizabeth at the weekend, the Lions' forwards decided to ginger it up themselves as they prepared for tomorrow afternoon's fixture with Border. The instigators of the rough stuff were the rival hookers, Mark Regan of England and Barry Williams of Wales, neither of whom appeared much interested in reasoned argument as push came to shove in a live scrummaging session. After two flare-ups and one collapsed scrum that might easily have resulted in half a dozen broken necks, Rob Wainwright, tomorrow's captain in the continued absence of Martin Johnson, called a halt to the shenanigans with a few well-chosen words.

Both protagonists dismissed the incident - "It happens in club training most weeks, so there's nothing to get in a sweat about," Regan said - while Fran Cotton, the tour manager, praised Wainwright for his sensible approach. "When you get a scrummaging session as ferocious as that, tensions run high," he said. "There is a lot of personal pride amongst the players and you get the occasional incident, but Rob dealt with it as every good captain should and as long as it all stays on the training field, fine."

Cotton should know. As an England and Lions prop of considerable repute and no little notoriety, he indulged in the odd bout of training session fisticuffs, notably with Phil Blakeway on the Lions tour of Springbok land 17 years ago. "At least it shows they care," he smiled as Wainwright set about soothing the troubled waters.

According to the hierarchy, the decision to keep Johnson's powder dry for the second successive match was no more significant than the Regan- Williams sparring match. "He'd rather play because he's that sort of bloke, but it was always agreed between ourselves that he would start his tour against Western Province in Cape Town on Saturday," Cotton insisted. "Martin played big games for Leicester until the very last weekend of the season, so we wanted to give him three weeks' rest and use him in the big games. He'll lead the side at Newlands, as planned."

There are, however, lingering concerns over the precise state of the captain's fitness. He is struggling with a groin condition that requires surgery sooner rather than later - he will almost certainly go under the knife on his return to England in July - and it is possible that he will make only six appearances in South Africa.

Doddie Weir, who performed so impressively against Kobus Wiese at the front of the line-out on Saturday, is the only player asked to turn out for a second full stint tomorrow, although Tony Underwood, the Newcastle wing, and Jeremy Davidson, the Irish lock, also face Border after brief spells as substitutes against Eastern Province. Once again, the selectors have based their line-up on well-established partnerships. Tim Stimpson, John Bentley and Underwood resume the back three axis familiar to Geordie supporters, Scott Gibbs and Allan Bateman renew the centre partnership that worked so smoothly for Wales during the Five Nations while Eric Miller and Neil Back bring a strong Leicester flavour to the loose forward unit, and Miller will also have a club-mate, Austin Healey, in situ at the base of the scrummage.

Injury hassles remain at a minimum, although Tom Smith, the Scottish prop, sat out yesterday's session with a neck strain, and Tim Rodber made an early exit to have five stitches inserted in his right eyelid. "You can't imagine how reassuring it is to have a full complement of players fit and available in the second week of a hard tour," said Cotton, well aware that on three of the last four Lions' trips, the Emergency Ward Ten routine was in overdrive by half-time in the opening match.

Border, who have struggled so far this season, will be spearheaded by their high-class full-back, Russell Bennett, a sharp counter-attacker who played for the Springboks in Argentina and France in 1996. They have a useful performer at scrum-half, too, in the shape of John Bradbrook, a former New Zealand Maoris captain and All Black trialist.

"Unlike Eastern Province, who were an under-rehearsed side with a lot of unfamiliar faces, Border will be a very cohesive unit," said Cotton. "We'll have to play well to win because they are certain to raise their game. It's the biggest match of the season for them." For Regan, who plays tomorrow, and Williams, who sits on the bench once more, it is also a big day; the chance to get physical with someone they are in no danger of having to share a room with.

BRITISH ISLES: T Stimpson (Newcastle and England); J Bentley (Newcastle and England), A Bateman (Richmond and Wales), S Gibbs (Swansea and Wales), T Underwood (Newcastle and England); P Grayson (Northampton and England), A Healey (Leicester and England); G Rowntree (Leicester and England), M Regan (Bristol and England), D Young (Cardiff and Wales), G Weir (Newcastle and Scotland), J Davidson (London Irish and Ireland), R Wainwright (Watsonians and Scotland, capt), E Miller (Leicester and Ireland), N Back (Leicester and England). Replacements: N Jenkins (Pontypridd and Wales), A Tait (Newcastle and Scotland), M Dawson (Northampton and England), B Williams (Richmond and Wales), P Wallace (Saracens and Ireland), T Rodber (Northampton and England).