Dods continues family business

RUGBY UNION: Scotland got more than they bargained for in their new kicker. Steve Bale reports; 'Today's cock, tomorrow's feather-duster, as they say, and that could be applied to me'; 'I cannot really ask for anything more than to counter-attack and run freely'
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The Independent Online
Michael Dods sat in Murrayfield's West Stand in 1984 the day brother Peter, his elder by 11 years, helped Scotland to their first Grand Slam for 59 years. Pete's feat created an ambition in the 15-year-old Mike that may be on the point of fulfilment.

First, though, there is the considerable task of following exhilarating victories over Ireland and France with another over Wales at Cardiff Arms Park tomorrow, when Michael wins his seventh cap. "The words 'grand' and 'slam' are taboo at the moment," the junior Dods said. So England at Murrayfield on 2 March can - will have to - wait.

Quite right too. "I never take anything for granted - not my own selection, and certainly not beating Wales who have been terribly underestimated in the build-up to this match," he said. " 'Today's cock, tomorrow's feather- duster', as they say, and that could be applied to me or to the team if things don't go to plan."

Even so, it is an ecstatic time to be a member of the Scottish team, earning the acclamation of all and sundry - even curmudgeonly Sassenachs, for heaven's sake - for their scintillating rugby. It is ecstasy of a quite harmless kind.

It is also a pleasant little irony that Dods, having usefully lost his place when the Scots lost to Italy last month, should have been recalled to kick the goals that were missed in Rieti but in the event has kicked only four from 13 and is instead Scotland's try-scoring talisman. One against the Irish followed by both (among all 19 points) against the French, all the while playing out of position on the wing instead of where he likes it at full-back.

"People say to me you've been brought in for your goal-kicking but I have always liked to think I was not just a kicker, that I could play a bit as well. I have been practising hard on my kicking and will continue to do so; it's not that I'm striking it badly but that makes no difference if they don't go over.

"Luckily I've been in the right position at the right time for the tries and, to be frank, anyone else would have scored them. In a perfect world I prefer to play full-back but the way Scotland are playing means I'm getting my hands on the ball and I can't really ask for anything more than to counter-attack and run freely."

Dods, 27, has been round a few years, but it is only with his cross-border move from Gala to Northampton, at first sight an unlikely broadening of horizons, that he has secured his international place.

He had lived his entire life in Clovenfords, a village near Galashiels, and for him now to be ensconced in a thatched cottage in Sharnbrook, a village near Bedford, marks a fairly radical cultural break. Quintessential Scottish Borderer comes to quintessential Middle England.

To leave Gala last year, especially as Peter was the coach, was to uproot far more profoundly than is suggested by a simple change of clubs and, though Gregor Townsend's decision to make precisely the same journey was fortuitous, it was entirely coincidental. Moreover, unlike Townsend Dods is not prepared to give any undertakings that one day he will return whence he came.

An umbilical cord has thus been cut. He was only 17 when he began playing alongside Peter for Gala - a fraternal liaison that caused Michael to be stuck on the wing until big brother's retirement in 1992, though in the meantime he did make it on Scotland's tour of north America in 1991.

Eventually Dods made the bench for the end of the 1994 Five Nations and won his first caps in the inauspiciuous circumstances of that year's tour of Argentina by a deliberately weakened squad.

Scotland lost the first Test by a point and the second by two, Dods missing a last-kick penalty that would have squared the series.

"People who haven't been there have no conception of how hard it is touring Argentina but, if it did nothing else, it woke me up to the realities of international rugby," he said. "When we came back I had a summer on the sprints circuit in the Borders and then returned to rugby with a totally fresh outlook, knowing that because the World Cup was coming up I needed to make a big push. Then in my first club game I tore my medial ligament."

And with that went Dods' hopes of a World Cup place because, although he was playing again 10 weeks later, the knee was not properly healed, his impact was limited and in any case without him the Scots did well enough to go to Twickenham for the Grand Slam at the end of the championship. Instead it went to England but by then all that was left for Dods was to win a place on the development tour to Zimbabwe.

This was a helpful experience, but no more than the move to Northampton that was to follow. In between times he spent half a season in New Zealand, representing Otago twice and sitting on the bench eight times, and when he finally pitched up at Franklin's Gardens he had added half a stone to his self-admitedly spindly frame and an unquantifiable amount to his confidence. No longer Dods the diddyman.

Taken under the wing of Ian McGeechan, an illustrious coach of both Scotland and the Lions, he has flourished, all but one of his games for the Saints having been where he prefers to be - at full-back. "One reason I made this move was that I wanted to give myself a test against players in England and see if I was good enough to stand up to the standard of rugby.

"The other was because Geech was here. The fact that they had gone down to the Second Division wasn't a consideration because he had explained exactly what he wanted to do here and it was irresistibly forward-thinking.

"The rugby has been very, very good; the style we've been playing has been absolutely tremendous, hugely enjoyable."

Evidently Dods has none of the difficulty stepping up from Second Division to international rugby that has afflicted some of the English Saints. Next season, he imagines, will be even better when - surely not if - Northampton return to the First Division.

The beneficiaries of McGeechan's good works are Scotland and Ireland (through Jonathan Bell and Allen Clarke) just as much as England and, if that upsets the alickadoos at Twickenham, neither McGeechan nor Dods is bothered.

For young Michael, there is Wales to beat - and, like Peter before him, a Grand Slam to be won. Which is more than can be said for this season's Sassenachs.

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