Rugby Union: Five Nations' Championship - Scots put the accent on talent

Metcalfe and `kilted Kiwis' called up for international rescue
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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a time, in his headmastering days at Hawick High School, when Jim Telfer could find vital national rugby resources on his own playing field. Colin Deans, the boiler-room stoker of the team Telfer coached to a Grand Slam in 1984, was plucked from that fertile patch of Borders grass. So was Tony Stanger, who secured the crowning glory for the Scotland side Telfer helped Ian McGeechan mould into Grand Slammers in 1990. These days, though, the Scottish rugby talent is not so close to Telfer's home in Galashiels.

It is not so Scottish either, a state of national affairs that has had Caledonian blood simmering with disapproval, if not quite boiling with outrage. Had Gordon Simpson not been injured, the team Telfer and his fellow selectors pick to play Wales at Murrayfield on Saturday could well have been not so much a Scotland XV as a Scotland X and New Zealand V. As it is, the influence of the "Kilted Kiwis", as the blood- related laddies from the land of the long white cloud have been christened, will be strong enough, with Glenn Metcalfe, Shaun Longstaff and John and Martin Leslie all likely to be pressing the thistle-crest to hearts that once longed for the silver fern.

"I just don't think you can have five or six players with New Zealand accents in a Scotland team," John Beattie, once of the Scottish back row and now of the press box back row, opined last week. And Rob Wainwright, who has been pushed out of the Scotland squad by a combination of outsiders and his poor form, has urged Telfer to "make sure Scotland do not become a Scottish World XV."

The one thing Telfer must ensure, as Scotland's head coach and the Scottish Rugby Union's director of rugby, is that his country does not become a Third World nation in rugby terms. And a dearth of quality home-grown playing resources explains why the Scottish Lion has been in rampant decline for the best part of three years now. Since Michael Dods inspired Scotland to their last famous victory, against France in February 1996, they have won just one Five Nations match on home soil - against Ireland two years ago. Last season, in their two matches at Murrayfield, 11 tries and 85 points were conceded.

Hence the fast-track welcome extended to the Leslie boys, sons of the former All Black captain Andy Leslie. They were called up in the pre- Christmas programme, after playing just two-and-a-half matches between them in the land of their grandfather. John, rated by many as the best inside-centre in New Zealand's National Provincial Championship last year, showed enough of his cutting edge against South Africa, Portugal and Spain to suggest he could not just flower for Scotland but bloom into one of the players of the Five Nations too. Metcalfe might also send Scotland's critics homeward to think again.

Since switching to full-back 14 months ago, the one-time Waikato wing has been likened, in attacking aspect at least, to Andy Irvine. The comparison may be premature but Telfer and the selectors have seen such promise in the 27-year-old they have omitted Derrick Lee from their 22- man squad. Having missed the end of the year internationals with a shoulder injury, Metcalfe is about to be unleashed at Murrayfield. He played twice against Australia on Scotland's summer tour last year but Saturday will be his first Test on his adopted home turf.

"To play in the Five Nations would be a real buzz," he said, careful not to count any selectorial chickens ahead of Thursday's team announcement. "It's the ultimate in northern hemisphere rugby. I watched the Five Nations for a long, long time from across the other side of the world. Actually to be involved in it would be a terrific experience. I've played at Murrayfield in the Scottish Cup final but to play there with the whole of Scotland behind you would be something else."

Metcalfe has had longer than the Leslies to imagine the prospect. He has been a Scottish resident for two-and-a-half years now, playing for Glasgow Academicals, Glasgow Hawks and now Glasgow Caledonians. His Caledonian roots are on Clydeside, where his late grandmother lived at Shawfield. But home to Metcalfe is Te Awamutu, the Waikato country town that gave the music world the inestimable Neil Finn and Crowded House.

Murrayfield on Saturday will be a crowded house, filled for the first time in 10 months to its 67,500 capacity. It will be full of pressure too, given the harsh fact that trips to Twickenham and Paris lie ahead for Telfer's team. Scotland's last win at England's HQ dates back to 1983 and when they last won in Paris, at Stade Colombes in 1969, JW Telfer of Melrose scored the clinching try. Failure to open with a win against Wales would leave Scotland facing another season, a third in succession, with only the prospect of a win against Ireland for consolation.

"Yeah," Metcalfe said, "it does put the pressure on. But I think we've got a good mix of players, with flair and youth and experience. I'm sure we can do well. I'm quite happy with people thinking they can write us off. I know I can speak for the rest of the squad. That doesn't concern us in the slightest. We know what we can do."

So does Jim Telfer. And, with kilted Kiwis to add to the equation, the former chemistry teacher knows he is more likely to come up with a winning formula for Scotland.

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