Rugby Union: Exiles are excused from trial as Scots cast wide net

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The Independent Online
Battered by the Wallabies and blitzed by the Springboks, the Scottish selectors have decided to return to first principles by holding a good, old-fashioned trial match to help them gauge form and fitness.

But, as Chris Hewett reveals, there are complications. Not everyone will be there.

Scotland's bemused and befuddled coaching hierarchy yesterday climbed into their time machine, pressed the "past" button and reappeared in faintly familiar territory long abandoned by European rugby folk: the land of the national trial. Trial? Most Scots already believe their Test team to be guilty on all counts following a couple of criminal displays against Australia and South Africa, but there is at least one mitigating circumstance - the avoidance of an unholy row with England's leading clubs.

The midweek match will take place at Watsonians' Myreside ground in Edinburgh on 7 January and will be restricted to home-based players. Given that a large contingent of top-ranking exiles - Alan Tait, Gregor Townsend, Andy Nicol, Dave Hilton and Doddie Weir among them - will be busily preparing for important Allied Dunbar Premiership matches on 10 and 11 January, any attempt to involve them on trial business would inevitably have led to some angry posturing and a flurry of cross-border insults.

Richie Dixon, the national coach, emphasised that the trial was aimed at "aspiring" players who needed a "high-intensity stage" on which to impress, adding intriguingly: "We want to make it clear that every position is there to be competed for."

While it is inconceivable that the Scots will omit the best of their English-based talent for the international against Italy at the end of next month, Dixon's comments were clearly aimed at destroying the comfort zone inhabited by his Premiership players. If the trial is a success, it will not be long before the Scots make it a "no show, no play" event.

The Welsh selectors, meanwhile, are relishing the opportunity to contrast and compare their two outstanding candidates for the mythically-charged No 10 shirt in this season's Five Nations. Swansea, the league leaders, take on Pontypridd, the champions, at St Helen's today and if ever a battle within a battle was likely to decide the outcome, it is the one between Arwel Thomas and Neil Jenkins.

Thomas, certainly the most naturally gifted stand-off to emerge in Wales since Jonathan Davies, lost his Test place to the more soberly orthodox Jenkins for last month's match with New Zealand at Wembley, but according to Garin Jenkins, the Swansea captain, he is close to his impish best. "He is coming right back to top form and when he plays at that level, he is an out-and-out match-winner," said the former international hooker. If history has anything to do with it, Thomas will come up smelling of roses. Pontypridd have not won at Swansea since 1973.

In England, Newcastle's visit to bottom club Bristol and Richmond's foray into the wild acres of Gloucester are the highlights of the Premiership programme. Newcastle stick with the line-up that lost narrowly to Agen in last weekend's European Conference semi-final. Tim Stimpson, the Lions full-back, remains outside in the chilly stuff, while Richmond must cope with Gloucester's new signing, the Army wing Brian Johnson.

Interestingly, Stimpson is not the only Lion feeling frozen out today. None of the 36 tourists who squeezed past the Springboks in South Africa last summer - 40 if you include the replacements - have been included in a World XV selected by correspondents of the French paper, L'Equipe. What is more, there are no Frenchmen either. New Zealand contribute 10 of the side, with the rest made up of Springboks. How the mighty are fallen.