Rugby Union / Five Nations Focus: Chalmers' charms seek outlet: Are new laws stopping the stand-off from standing out? Barrie Fairall reports.

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The Independent Online
THERE was a time when a talented stand-off stood a half-decent chance of pinning back his ears and heading into open space. It was one of the great charms of rugby and yet, like life on the roads, the Craig Chalmers of this world are now continually confronted by traffic-jams. Thanks to modern legislation, Chalmers can expect more of the same when he runs up against Wales tomorrow afternoon at Murrayfield.

When Chalmers made his debut against Wales in 1989, he was going places fast. By the summer, he had earned himself a Test place with the Lions in Australia and the following year he was celebrating a Scottish Grand Slam. Now, however, as others in his position have discovered, it is a rather different ball game.

Fortunately for the Scots, though, Chalmers has more than one string to his bow at a time when the back row boys appear to be calling all the shots. And, England having dropped Rob Andrew after his 52nd international appearance, Chalmers, with 31 caps to his name, is the most experienced outside-half among the home countries.

Maybe the bricks are in shorter supply, but his all-round skills are never in question. You adapt to the situation, one that at present demands having to cope with a midfield clutter the likes of which Barry John never encountered. Chalmers' forte is second-phase ball - 'support play is something that has been drummed into us at squad sessions' - which at least allows him some opportunities to take off, but he is a fine tactical kicker and superb in the tackle.

If the role of those wearing the No 10 jersey has been restricted by law changes, then Chalmers is still very much his own man. 'I always wanted to develop my own style,' said the successor to John Rutherford, who was capped a record 42 times at outside-half for Scotland and helped assist in the development of the Melrose player.

Rutherford is the first to acknowledge the current pressure placed on an outside-half. 'Players just hang off now and it makes it much harder for stand-offs,' he said. 'I would change the law. If you're driving on and the ball doesn't come back, the scrum put- in should still go to the team who are moving forward.'

The experimental law introduced this season dictates quite the reverse. 'All that's happening now is that teams are committing only three or four players to the ruck and getting in between the ball and the opposition. They know they are then going to get the put-in at the scrum and everybody wins their own scrum ball.'

For all that, Rutherford feels that Chalmers has lost none of his effectiveness. Indeed, 'the laws are probably suiting Craig because he has always been a good kicker. He can stand back and put up high balls and it is a tactic that works. It's crazy, because the legislators are looking for backs to be more creative. The only chance you have of breaking is from very fast second-phase balls.' Conversely: 'I still think Scotland are looking to do more than just kick the ball and against Ireland and France they moved the ball more than they have done in the past couple of seasons. But if anyone's going to make a break, it's more likely to be the scrum-half.'

In that respect, Chalmers is in good company and tomorrow marks the 25th occasion that he and Gary Armstrong have joined forces as Scotland's half-backs. In Paris, Rutherford says, it was the scrum-half who was 'getting in behind the French'.

As far as the Lions' tour of New Zealand goes, Rutherford likes the look of Cardiff's Adrian Davies, 'who can take the ball flat like England's Stuart Barnes, but Wales are obviously picking their current stand-off Neil Jenkins because he's a good place-kicker. Also, I don't think you can discount Rob Andrew, even though he has been dropped by England. You'll need guys like him in New Zealand because he's hard and he'll take the punishment. Barnes is not as abrasive.' As for Chalmers, 'his defensive play is probably as good as any stand-off in the world.'

On Monday, Don Rutherford, the Rugby Football Union's technical director, said: 'There is less happiness with the new laws the higher you go'. Which makes it all the more surprising when you hear Jim Telfer, former international No 8, Melrose coach and the Scottish RFU's convenor of coaching, say: 'I'm quite pleased with them, actually, so long as the referees play them'. But then he does have Chalmers to call on.

'Craig is not a natural beater of men with sidestep and swerve. He tends to beat them by strength or by getting over the gain-line quickly. So if there is a cluttered midfield he usually has to take the tackles. We've been trying to use the blind side as much as possible so that we can nullify a bit of that.'

There is pride in the voice when Telfer discusses tackling. 'Craig doesn't get as much credit as he should. He never shirks a tackle and makes more in our team than anybody else, including the flankers. Comparisons? 'Barnes can beat men and then take off again. There are not many stand- offs who can do that.' Chalmers, on the other hand, 'is a one-pace sort of player, but he does take the ball quickly on the gain- line and he's not afraid of physical contact.'

If Chalmers, still only 24, has not yet shown his cutting edge this season then the physical aspect of the game may have taken its toll. 'After the France-Scotland game, one or two people criticised him for kicking two or three times,' Rob Moffat, the Melrose backs coach, said, 'but the ordinary spectator sometimes fails to realise the kind of ball somebody is getting. The slow ball from ruck and maul is very difficult to do anything with. Everybody has always wanted fast ball, and it is even more important now.'

Moffatt also disclosed that Chalmers 'has been carrying an injury for a wee while. Probably shin splints, something like that. In fairness, he's not as sharp as he would be if he was 100 per cent fit. These guys, you know, have tremendous pressure on them what with league matches in between internationals. It's impossible really.'

Perhaps people expect too much from their heroes. When you are next in a traffic-jam, spare a thought for Chalmers. Given the space, he and Barnes and a few others are quite capable of putting the charm back into rugby.

(Photograph omitted)

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