Rugby Union: Burden falls on Scotland's backs

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Missing a quartet of key players, the odds are against Scotland bucking the trend of their inauspicious record in pre-Christmas home record when they face Australia at Murrayfield today. As Simon Turnbull reports, though, the debut of a winger with an international family pedigree has raised hopes of an upset.

November at Murrayfield has become wing and a prayer time even for Scotland's finest. Steamrollered (51-15) by the All Black machine in 1993, brushed aside (34-10) by the Springboks in 1994, held (15-15) by Western Samoa in 1994 and waltzed over (29-19) by the Wallabies a year ago, tradition suggests the Scots ought not to have a prayer of beating Australia this afternoon.

Rational analysis would indicate as much too, given the absence from the Scottish ranks of Doddie Weir, Tom Smith, Rob Wainwright and Rowen Shepherd. Against a pack patched up with a trio of debutants - hooker Grant McKelvey, lock Scott Murray and blind-side flanker Adam Roxburgh - Rod Macqueen's unchanged side will be expecting a relatively smooth passage, and a comfortable victory.

Scotland's strength lies behind the scrum. The trouble is that without Weir to challenge John Eales for line-out ball, the bullocking Smith to drive from the front-row and Wainwright to forage from the back of the pack they might not get much of a chance to utilise it.

The Scottish prayer must be that a dash of Braveheart spirit might make up a liberal measure of the apparent gulf. Failing that, there is always the wing - James Craig, the debutant right-wing.

The Glasgow student is only 20 but great expectations will be pinned on to his jersey when 3pm comes round.

Dougie Morgan, the Scotland team manager, has compared him with Keith Fielding: "He's only player I can think of with the same kind of scalding burst off a standing start," Morgan said. And Alan Tait can see shades of another cross-code speed merchant in his new back-line colleague.

"He reminds me of Martin Offiah when I first came across him at Widnes," the Newcastle centre said. "Martin could run like the wind and James is the same. He's a flying machine and you've got to use what guys like that have got."

Tait has already done as much. The powerhouse performance he gave for Scotland A in submerging a supposedly "Emerging Wales" team in January not only prompted his return to the international union scene but brought Craig to a wider audience.

Craig claimed a hat-trick that day but the West of Scotland wing has become wary amid the mounting expectancy as his big day has approached. "The easy bit is catching the eyes of the selectors," he said. "The harder part is justifying their faith sufficiently to ensure that you're not a one-hit wonder."

That particular fear is a well-founded one in the Craig household. Today happens to be the 30th anniversary of the first and last cap Craig's father collected as a Scottish footballer.

Jim Craig - JC Senior - was the overlapping right-back in the Celtic team that beat Internazionale in the 1967 European Cup final. His sole appearance for Scotland was in a 3-2 victory against Wales at Hampden Park that year.

JC junior will not, however, be the only Scot behind the scrum under particular pressure to perform this afternoon. Indeed, the respective burdens borne by Andy Nicol, Gregor Townsend and Duncan Hodge are probably heavier.

In collecting his first cap since 1994, Nicol will have to contend with George Gregan - in the estimation of Sid Going, no less, the scrum-half world-leader at present. In the absence of Wainwright, he will also be Scotland's team-leader.

Outside the Bath captain, Townsend gets his latest chance to finally take up a lasting residency at No 10, while Hodge will be a stand-off standing in for Shepherd at full-back. The Watsonian has played for only 10 minutes as a last-line since his Durham University days, but his place- kicking could prove just as vital, especially if Eales is as wayward with the boot as he was in the 15-15 draw against England a week ago.

Hodge padded up as a bat-and-ball international for his country before he helped to avert a threatened cricket score on his debut for the oval- ball side - as a replacement for Craig Chalmers in the 47-20 Paris mis- match back in March. His latest exercise, unfortunately, could also be of a damage limitation nature.

Not since July 1982, and a 12-7 victory clinched by a Keith Robertson try at Ballymore, have Scotland whipped the Wallabies - or, for that matter, any one of the southern hemisphere superpowers. The pity is they might have had a fighting chance this afternoon - with their own particular superpowers in the pack.


at Murrayfield

D Hodge Watsonians 15 S Larkham ACT

J Craig West of Scotland 14 B Tune Queensland

A Stanger Hawick 13 T Horan Queensland

A Tait Newcastle 12 P Howard ACT

K Logan Wasps 11 J Roff ACT

G Townsend Northampton 10 E Flatley Queensland

A Nicol Bath, capt 9 G Gregan ACT

D Hilton Bath 1 A Harry NSW

G McKelvey Watsonians 2 M Foley Queensland

M Stewart Northampton 3 A Blades NSW

S Campbell Dundee HSFP 4 J Langford ACT

S Murray Bedford 5 J Eales Queensland, capt

A Roxburgh Kelso 6 O Finegan ACT

E Peters Bath 8 W Ofahengaue NSW

I Smith Moseley 7 B Robinson ACT

Referee: T Henning (South Africa) Kick-off: 3.0 (BBC1)

Substitutes: 16 C Joiner (Leicester); 17 C Chalmers (Melrose); 18 G Armstrong (Newcastle); 19 S Grimes (Watsonians); 20 G Graham (Newcastle); 21 G Bulloch (West of Scotland).

Substitutes: 16 M Hardy (NSW); 17 S Payne (NSW); 18 A Heath (NSW); 19 M Captuo (ACT); 20 M Cockbain (Queensland); 21 D Wilson (Queensland).