Return of the prodigal may not stop Scots' slide into ignominy

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The Independent Online

Alan Tait's last appearance for Scotland happens to date back to the day which ended with Dean Richards and John Jeffrey being held accountable for the Calcutta Cup being used as a football on Princes Street. Nine years later, the prodigal Tait returns after his rugby league exile with Scotland's battered pride in need of urgent repair.

Last season, and the season before, Scotland went into their final Five Nations fixture with Grand Slam glory within their grasp. Defeat against Ireland at Murrayfield today would leave Rob Wainwright and his colleagues with one hand on the wooden spoon and, given the Paris match awaiting them in a fortnight, the prospect of sliding ignominiously into the history books as the first whitewashed Scotland team since 1985.

It was the same season, in fact, that the Irish celebrated their most recent success at Murrayfield, an 18-15 victory which featured two Trevor Ringland tries. If that proves to be an unhappy coincidence for the Scots, their selectors, Jeffrey among them, could be excused for not knowing where to turn next - except, perhaps, for examining the kind of fruitful family trees which have produced three of the 21 players on duty for Ireland today.

Scotland's fitful form since Arwel Thomas's failed touchline conversion left them three-quarters of the way to a Grand Slam 12 months ago has simply underscored the bottom line that Richie Dixon, the national team coach, has a dearth of world-class talent at his disposal. That stark reality was exposed by Australia and Italy before Christmas and exploited by Wales, with their three-try scoring burst in five second-half minutes at Murrayfield in January, and by England at Twickenham four weeks ago.

At least Tait's return to the union fold, with Newcastle, has afforded the Scottish selectors another midfield option. Jeffrey's one-time Kelso comrade suggested with his influential performance in Scotland A's 56- 11 submerging of an "Emerging Wales" in January that he will have much to offer in his centre pairing with Gregor Townsend, even as a 32-year- old who made his international debut as a replacement for John Rutherford in the World Cup match against France in Christchurch 10 years ago.

Much has been made this week of Tait's second coming. Much too much, in fact. As Wainwright, the captain, put it yesterday: "Some people seem to be expecting miracles from Alan, but he has been out of rugby union for longer than his Welsh counterparts."

Wainwright, who moves to his favoured blind-side position in Scotland's back row this afternoon, might have added that more than one re-converted Welshman breathed new life into the old dragon at Murrayfield six weeks ago. The great Scotts, Quinnell and Gibbs, and Allan Bateman, were also in the Welsh team which subsequently had its tail put between its legs by the Irish. Fortunately for Scotland, the false dawn syndrome was transmitted to the victors in Cardiff that day.

Brian Ashton arrived in Edinburgh on Thursday with his six-year contract but with a team in tatters. Considering that Eric Miller, Eric Elwood and Nick Popplewell have, since the Arms Park game, been added to a casualty list which already included Simon Geoghegan and Keith Wood, the former Bath coach could be said to have swapped the Rec for the wrecks.

The wound of most immediate concern to Ashton, though, is the one that was inflicted by the 17 men who played for the land of his fathers at Lansdowne Road a fortnight ago. The damage done by the five tries conceded in that final 16-minute slaughter could have painful implications if Scotland make an early breakthrough this afternoon.


at Murrayfield

R Shepherd Melrose 15 J Staples London Irish, capt

A Stanger Hawick 14 D Hickie St Mary's College

A Tait Newcastle 13 M Field Malone

G Townsend Northampton 12 K McQuilkin Lansdowne

K Logan Stirling Co 11 J Bell Northampton

C Chalmers Melrose 10 D Humphreys London Irish

B Redpath Melrose 9 B O'Meara Cork Constitution

T Smith Watsonians 1 P Flavin Blackrock College

G Ellis Currie 2 R Nesdale Newcastle

M Stewart Northampton 3 P Wallace Saracens

G Weir Newcastle 4 P Johns Saracens

A Reed Wasps 5 J Davidson London Irish

R Wainwright Watsonians, capt 6 D Corkery Bristol

P Walton Newcastle 8 B Cronin Garryowen

I Smith Moseley 7 D McBride Malone

Referee: G Simmons (Wales). Kick-off: 3.0 (BBC Scotland).