Rugby Union: Chalmers keeps fighting for possession

Five Nations Countdown: Scotland's No 10 will guide the `old firm' against France. Tim Glover reports
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The Independent Online
WHEN the coaching partnership of Richie Dixon and David Johnston was dismissed by the Scottish Rugby Union a couple of weeks ago, a funny thing happened to Craig Chalmers. His conscience troubled him.

"I felt a bit guilty about the guys getting the sack," Chalmers said. "It seems to be the coaches that get the sharp end of the stick, but they're not always to blame."

Before the professional free-for-all, Chalmers, as Scottish as his middle name, Minto, implies, was tempted to leave his beloved Melrose for Leicester. As one of the top-rated outside-halves in the world he had offers from Australian Capital Territory and Natal but it was Leicester who nearly got him.

"It was very attractive. They offered me a job and it was a good set- up." The reason he did not join the Tigers is that Jim Telfer persuaded him not to. "It's not done me any harm," Chalmers said. "I still haven't ruled out the possibility of having a season or two in England. It would be quite nice to see what the intensity was like compared to international rugby."

Scotland, along with Wales and Ireland, are suffering from a brain and brawn drain with a lot of their players earning their bread and butter from the English league.

"Last year, getting players up to Scotland for training sessions was a nightmare," Chalmers said. "It would help us enormously if we had more international players north of the border. The trouble is the salaries are bigger down south, and it could be argued that they are playing a higher standard. There again, not all of them are getting regular first- team rugby.

"The SRU want them in Scotland and the RFU are keen to have fewer non- English players in their clubs. Something like 40 per cent of the players in the Premiership are non-English which can't be doing English rugby much good."

It is not, however, the health of the game south of the border that concerns Chalmers. One of the biggest problems in welcoming exiles into the national squad for the Five Nations is in getting them to adjust to a different ball-game.

Gregor Townsend, by virtue of the fact that he plays for Northampton under Ian McGeechan (who has been reunited with Telfer under the SRU shakeup), is probably an exception. The fact that Chalmers, not for the first time, has managed to dislodge Townsend from outside-half to centre, says an awful lot about his competitiveness and staying power. "I've had a few kicks in the teeth in my time," Chalmers said. "It makes some people stronger, others weaker. I've always come back."

Chalmers, who used to say that the biggest influences on his career were his late father, Brian (a coach at Melrose), Telfer and McGeechan, was, at 19, the youngest player to represent Scotland B 10 years ago, a record subsequently taken by Townsend.

On his senior debut against Wales in 1989, Chalmers scored a try and dropped a goal and the same year went on the Lions' tour to Australia. The first kick in the teeth came when he was replaced by Rob Andrew after playing in the opening Test.

He suffered another bad break when, playing against England at Twickenham in 1993, he fractured an arm, a few months before the Lions' party to tour New Zealand was selected. "I felt I was the most consistent performer at that time," he said. This whole episode was almost too much to bear. It's not just that you break your arm, but you break it against the damned English; it's not just that you miss a tour, but you lose out to that man Andrew again.

And it did not get any better. When Chalmers walked off Twickenham with a broken heart as well as a broken arm, he was replaced by Townsend. The following season, against Wales at Cardiff, Chalmers went off injured, Townsend moved from centre to outside-half and, to add insult to injury, subsequently kept the No 10 jersey.

Townsend regards himself as a No 10 but others disagree. With Northampton and Scotland he has been unable to hold on to the position.

"I always knew Gregor was going to be a threat," Chalmers said. "But I never thought it would work out like this. When he was a young lad with Gala, great things were expected of him. He's always had fantastic ability but I think he's even more valuable at 13. He has more space at outside centre. It's just a personal opinion."

At this, Chalmers almost laughs his head off.

He was not laughing last summer when the Lions party for South Africa was announced. Sitting at home watching television he took another battering when he discovered the outside-halves were Townsend and Paul Grayson. "I was up for the job and I thought I had a good chance.

"I was confident in breaking the gain line and dictating play. I was terribly disappointed."

Although Chalmers was on stand-by, when injury ruled out Grayson the management sent for Mike Catt.

The Scots, torn by arguments twixt clubs and districts, got off to a wretched start this season with heavy defeats to Australia and South Africa at Murrayfield and last month fell to Italy, a defeat which led to the severing of the Dixon-Johnson line. The immediate result was a victory over Ireland in Dublin. "They have gone back to the old firm and at the same time given the players a kick up the backside," Chalmers said. "We have responded by taking the first step forward."

At the age of 29, and with a budding back-row on his hands in his sons Sam (4), Ben (2) and Robbie (six months), Chalmers is in his 10th Five Nations' Championship. The arrival of France in Edinburgh tomorrow, as overwhelming favourites, fills him with a feeling of deja vu.

"Once again, people have written us off and we love that," he said. "Beating England in Paris was their biggest game of the season and they will be cock-a-hoop. They're a quality side but our tactics will be better than England's. Playing in Paris is a totally different matter. When they travel they don't perform quite as well.

"We have got to gain parity up front. If we can do that, put pressure on their key players and don't kick the ball away, we can win. Let's hope there's a nice cold wind at Murrayfield."

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