Tait and guile sweeten Lions

Western Province 21 British Lions 38
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The Independent Online
The conversion of the Lions on the road to Cape Town has yet to be completed; when they return to Newlands in just under three weeks they will face the ultimate test of their evangelical commitment to a better, purer future. But there is surely no going back now, for some of the rugby the tourists produced against Western Province on Saturday would have left St Paul boggle-eyed in wonderment.

It is beginning to dawn on the South African rugby fraternity that the cutting edge of Martin Johnson's party is a whole lot sharper than they imagined, and the manner of the visitors' 38-21 victory on a Cape afternoon of scorching heat and scalding pace left good local judges reaching for a stiff drink or 10 before sundown.

As it is not in the Springbok nature to turn the other cheek, we can expect the softening-up process to begin in earnest when the Lions face Mpumalanga, or South-Eastern Transvaal, in Witbank on Wednesday.

Yet whatever now happens in the run-up to the first Test confrontation on 21 June, the ingredients for an epic series will remain in place. After witnessing the brilliance of Rob Howley and Gregor Townsend at half-back, the no-nonsense aggression of Alan Tait in midfield, the undiminished finishing prowess of Ieuan Evans and Tim Stimpson's cucumber-cool progress as a front-line goalkicker, not even the most myopic Western Province die-hard could dismiss the Lions out of hand. They will be worthy opponents for the Bokke, particularly if the injury list continues to fill a postage stamp rather than a copy of War and Peace.

Of course, the glitter gang outside the scrum cannot do the job in isolation; if the Lions are to triumph, the heavy duty forwards will have to stand up to be counted at some point. For the third successive match, the Lions' set-piece creaked and squeaked, groaned and squealed and was shunted around from pillar to post like a rusty old bedstead. Had it not been for Howley's brilliance at the scrummage base, the rapier would have been confined to the scabbard.

"They've got to get that scrummage sorted out," said Andrew Aitken, whose dynamic contribution in the Western Province back row rivalled anything on view in a pulsating contest. "If they try to run ball in retreat against the Springboks they'll find themselves in real strife."

For all that, Aitken was jaw-droppingly impressed by the Lions' ability to run slide-rule angles into open space: "Their lines of running were extremely good, as were their ball skills," said the former Oxford University student, whose Scottish ancestry will almost certainly earn him an availability card bearing an Edinburgh postmark before very much longer. "It would not surprise me one bit if the Lions reached the first Test unbeaten. The scrum is the key area for them now. They can do most other things far better than we thought."

Starting, presumably, out wide. The Lions' carefully constructed tactic of minimising big-hit tackles by running unorthodox angles almost bore fruit in the second minute when a bewildering move involving Tait, Richard Hill, John Bentley and a pumped-up Barry Williams gave Evans a scent of the line. The Western Province cover denied the Welshman, but there was no stopping Bentley in the 13th minute as Townsend performed Open Sesame on the South African midfield. Simon Shaw's tonnage and Howley's quick hands did the rest.

With Stimpson's radar fully tuned, the Lions were able to ride the discomfort caused by Dick Muir's strike at the end of the first quarter and re-establish their authority by working Tait in at the left corner.

Frustratingly, the forwards then let things slip. Aitken was given the run of the pitch, Fritz van Heerden stepped up a gear in the tight and loose and when Muir stretched over for his second try five minutes before the break, Western Province appeared to have the force with them.

Sure enough, Aitken created a superb score for Robbie Brink, his back row colleague, just eight minutes into the second half and, for the first time, the Lions were behind. Would the wheels stay on? Thankfully for the Lions, Stimpson's howitzer right boot and Howley's sharp-eyed acceleration provided the answer.

Stimpson's penalties in the 51st and 65th minutes settled the tourists, who were equally relieved to see Garry Pagel, the destructive Western Province loose-head prop, inexplicably substituted by Harry Viljoen. Howley lit up the last quarter with a blinding run into the home 22 and, ignoring Jeremy Guscott, floated a scoring pass to Evans, the Lions knew they were home. Bentley's opportunist try on the final whistle was mere icing on the cake, but he was suitably jubilant at putting a second five-pointer past the petulant James Small.

A curate's egg situation still, then, but more good than bad. Once Johnson, the reinforced concrete foundation of the Lions' pack, finds his feet, the tight work should improve out of all recognition. Having been persuaded to forfeit his place in the first two games - the management felt he needed to put his feet up for a week - he looked unusually one-paced on Saturday and was clearly short of gas. "That," he gasped, "was harder than any Five Nations match I've played. Ever. Full stop." Well, take a deep breath, Johnno. There's a whole lot more to come.

Scorers: Western Province: Tries: Muir 2, Brink; Conversions: Montgomery 3. British Lions: Tries: Bentley 2, Tait, Evans; Conversions: Stimpson 3; Penalties: Stimpson 4.

Western Province: J Swart; J Small, R Fleck, D Muir (capt), S Berridge; P Montgomery, S Hatley; G Pagel, A Paterson, K Andrews, F van Heerden, H Louw, R Brink, A Aitken, C Krige. Replacements: T van der Linde for Pagel, 56; B Skinstad for Krige, 64

British 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 (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: S Quinnell (Richmond and Wales) for Rodber, 63; W Greenwood (Leicester) for Tait, 72.

Referee: A Schoonwinkel (Free State).